Throughout my previous posts I have mused about the changes in the American information environment (primarily newspapers, general media, and reductions in civics curricula in schools) and how these changes probably affect what citizens know and understand about what their governments do each day. My concern lies in the basic relationship between awareness, understanding, and the ability of citizens to make informed choices about what they do and do not want provided as public goods. To me, a basic understanding of what we pay for and value in government services is fundamental to dealing with budget shortfalls as well as incorporating the sentiments of our anti-government neighbors into meaningful policy discussions. Tea Party activists need to be able to tell others exactly what they do not want to pay for (or use) and why and those who support the preservation of services need to be ready to argue for the need for those services.
The media environment is fragmented and since it is now more challenging than ever to find the information we need about government all in one place, I have posted questions to ASPA readers about the roles of their public affairs and communication offers. One response suggested that agencies may no longer staff these positions – if they ever staffed them – and the scholarly literature is silent on their effectiveness.
What does all of this mean for public servants who deal with citizens every day? Might public agencies begin by taking advantage of the citizen contact that is part of ordinary service delivery to inform and explain more about what it is they do and why? Would it make sense for a licensing clerk to explain to the irate citizen who has been handed a new form to complete that the form is intended to assure more efficient data processing so that their license is received 3-5 days earlier than usual rather than simply “the new form is required”? I realize that many of my colleagues over the years have indeed taken the time to do this type of informing in their public work, but how intentional are agencies in this task? Can it become a priority for all service delivery?
Of course government informing cannot become advocacy and communication cannot become propaganda. But in an age where the sources of government and civics information are fragmented at best and completely misleading at worst, might agencies begin by filling small gaps in knowledge as a part of direct service? In education, these are called “teachable moments”. Perhaps it can work in citizen interaction as well.
- Anita Larson, Public Administration Doctoral Student, St. Paul, MN