By Elaine Orr
When a private sector organization wants to get a point across, organizational leaders consider what they want to say, how they want to say it, and what the most effective method is to get their message to the audience they want to reach. It may be a complex set of tasks, but the path to accomplish them is fairly straight forward.
Not so in many segments of the public sector. The concept of keeping the public informed is a given in U.S. society, and is made more certain through open meeting requirements and the Freedom of Information Act. Things can get muddied in the public sector, where the message is important but considering how others will react to it is more prominent all the time. A public servant can be publicly castigated for presenting material that is accurate but with which other decision makers disagree.
At the federal level, political appointees and senior managers must always ask “what would Congress do?” in reaction to any statement. That’s appropriate; the concept of balance of power is in the constitution and it extends to all levels of government. However, the combination of a more contentious environment in Congress (in which policy disagreement can put a public servant in a very unfriendly congressional hearing) and media that looks for any nuance so it can present something ‘new’ about a story means that sentences are dissected in a way not done in even the early 1990s.
Because ‘media’ now includes more than traditional airwaves and print, there is often no one reviewing an article for accuracy or fairness. You could argue that these tasks were not always done consistently, but a scrupulous editor generally has different standards than a blogger or social networker — present company included.
The primary exceptions often deal with the weather. The weather — how is that a public sector issue? It is when people must be warned of impending storms, and even more so in their aftermath. Even the most contentious rivals, at all levels of government, put their heads together to address emergencies and provide initial disaster assistance promptly. (The early federal response following Katrina runs counter to this assertion, but that has been well covered elsewhere.)
Is it possible to create a ‘weather alert environment’ in other public sector fields, an environment in which the message is not only concise, comprehensive, and timely but also free of recrimination? A cynic would say this runs counter to human nature, at least as it has developed in modern U.S. society. A more hopeful response would be that executive and legislative branch members (from city councils to Congress) could test the idea of cooperative communication in less controversial areas and work their way up the ladder of contention to apply newly learned skills across government.
The idea of civility in government — as presented by former members of Congress, including Jim Leach, who now heads the National Endowment for Humanities — is a first step in creating an effective communication environment. There is even a nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Civility in Government. Though geared to students, its teachings are good ones for anyone in the public sector.
My blog posts will generally deal with effective communication and the need for civility in government. Reader input is welcome.
Elaine Orr has worked in the public and private sectors and also writes fiction. She worked for former Congressman Jim Leach and his successor, Dave Loebsack — yet another example of civility in Iowa.