Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal

I write about the things that matter to me. All opinions are my own.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

As a government communicator I have always had a heightened sensitivity to the gap between what the public wants to hear and what the government wants to say.

I've also understood that the government tends to play catch-up with the communication tools used by the private sector. (It took us *years* to legitimize the use of social media.)

In 2016-2017 one of my major "labors of love" was a research paper called "Advancing Federal Communications." Dozens of us worked on this paper. It called for professional standards for federal communications, similar to the concept used in the UK.

There, the government releases an annual plan for government communication outlining its priorities.

When it comes to communication, the UK also explicitly values measurement, a.k.a. evaluation.

We all know that in the United States, trust in government is at or near what they call "historic lows." We can speculate as to why that is. No doubt performance is a significant part of it.

But so is communication.

In the "olden days," meaning when I started working for the government (2003), the preferred communication style was excessively technical, e.g. nobody could understand what we were talking about. Subject matter experts ruled.

Landmark: "The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed on October 13, 2010. The law requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use." https://plainlanguage.gov/law/

But a lot of problems still remain.

Somebody very smart recently was asked what they would do to improve the function of an organization. That person said, let's talk about enhancing the quality of what's already there -- not knocking people down. I agree with that approach.

So let's be positive, and talk about what government communicators tend to have in common: dedication, smarts, nuanced thinking, clarity of writing, technical skill.

Let's build on that.

What government communicators tend to have in common, higher level: They are good at offering strategic, nonpartisan advice.

Another, but not so positive: Federal communicators often don't have a "seat at the table" where communication decisions are made. (Even if they're literally, physically in the room, objective advice is often not wanted.)

They are not taken seriously. And the reason for this, I believe, is a lack of standards for the profession. For example, project management has the "Project Management Body of Knowledge" (PMBOK), and related certification.

Government communicators don't even have a single unifying definition of "communication" as opposed to all other activities.

Furthermore, there is no bachelor's degree in the civil service that I am aware of.

There is no major concentration in "federal government communication."

There isn't even a guidebook that tells people what legal and regulatory authorities they're following as government communicators.

You wouldn't go on Shark Tank without a business plan. Similarly the government cannot magically operate communications without a strategic communication plan for its employees who conduct outreach or convey information.

This really has nothing to do with politics, and it shouldn't. Government communication needs to be nonpartisan.

The only way for a body of work to avoid being dragged into ideology wars is for the work to adhere to a professional set of standards. You should be able to audit government communication according to those.

But unfortunately, most of what the government has in the way of standards for communicators can be reducible to "thou shalt not," as in - "thou shalt not engage in propaganda, puffery, or grassroots lobbying."

While it's helpful to know what NOT to do, this doesn't exactly tell us what TO do. We know that communication is an affirmative duty to ensure accountability, compliance, etc. but that's about it.

There are multiple ways for the situation to be tackled, but first and foremost there has to be motivation at the highest levels to tackle it. (Not only among communicators themselves.)

Here's hoping that that the future will bring us an institutional structure dedicated to establishing standards and annual plans for government communication. Those should clearly establish what the public can expect and how they can complain, and obtain recourse, if they don't get it.

Here's hoping that the government will use its communicators to the fullest, to share as much information as we can, as accurately as we can, as clearly as we can, to ensure the most accountability and compliance possible.
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Copyright 2017 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. Photo via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

People often say that “you get what you pay for,” but in the case of communication that’s not necessarily true. Rather, “you get what you’re committed to.”

In the case of the federal government, it would be wise for leaders to consider renewing their commitment to honest, accurate, relevant reporting as to how agencies are spending taxpayer dollars. In August 2001, the GAO published “Internal Control and Management Tool,” which identified “information and communications” as one of the top 5 ways an agency can ensure accountability to the public. This term is defined from an internal point of view, as “relevant, reliable” content in all directions. However one can easily take it a step further: Great internal communication means great external communication as well.

And it doesn’t have to be costly. In September 2016, the GAO published a study of the $1.5 billion per year the federal government spends on advertising and public relations. Between FY2006–2014, on average, the federal government spent more than twice as much per year on advertising and PR contracts than on federal public affairs full-time employees: $1 billion vs. $430 million, on average.

(This data is admittedly skewed for a few reasons so consider it a general ballpark figure to compare the relative amount of money spent on contractors vs. FTEs.)

The Department of Defense does the lion’s share of the spending — 60% of the contract obligations and slightly more than 40% of the staff.

Oddly, when you consider how many headlines we regularly read about government “spin doctors” and propagandists, the government spends almost no money on public affairs specialists as civil servants— they comprise just slightly more than 1/4 of a percent (.28%) of all staff.

A recent internal audit by the Army found that much of its marketing and advertising is “ineffective,” a significant problem compounded by the fact that the DoD spends “hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars…each year” on this and plans to spend an estimated $4 billion over the next decade.

We don’t have a copy of the original audit yet, so it’s not clear how the conclusion was reached, but it’s clear that a simple Facebook Q&A is a free and effective way to reach the public. For example the State Dept. recently conducted a Q&A on applying for a U.S. passport.

For those who want to know more, Facebook & GovLoop published a guide to gov. use of FB that describes the Q&A feature (p. 9). This of course is not an endorsement of either.

The point is, there are many free ways to engage proactively with the public on topics they care about.

The trick to doing this well of course is to be receptive to public interest (they may care about a subject you don’t necessarily think is worthy of a session); prepare well (e.g. with a “murderboard” session where you think of the most difficult questions people could ask and develop responses in advance); promote the event effectively, across Facebook and Twitter (State had a great hashtag, #AskTravelGov), and have a clear moderation policy. (It should be a real conversation, not degenerate into a shoutdown.)

When it comes to good communication, commitment (and a bit of common sense) go a lot further than throwing dollars into the trash.

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Posted January 9, 2018 by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. This post is hereby released into the public domain. All opinions are the author’s own. Creative Commons photo by paulbr75 via Pixabay.
To bring people closer to the observance of the mitzvos, to help them love and fear God in the context of an existence filled with suffering and cruelty.

To provide human and humane answers to the questions people ask, taking into account knowledge of the Torah in its totality. 

To view the totality of Torah as encompassing the commandments that regulate interpersonal relationships (bain Adam LaChavero) and those that regulate the relationship between human beings and God (bain Adam LaMaKom).

To be aware at all times that there are unfortunately so many rabbis who have singlehandedly destroyed the "brand" of Judaism with their misdeeds, in particular through vile exploitation of those who trusted them blindly. 

To support those who do the opposite.

To measure the fitness of other rabbis by their results, not their restrictiveness.

To look for example at the number of people who go to the synagogue and at the increase in their level of observance. 

To be aware that one's observance level is correlated with their being labeled as good people with the potential to be better always -- not sinners from the minute they walk in the door. 

Certainly to distinguish between an actual requirement and a made-up requirement, not to mention a leniency.

To remember that they exist in a social context wherein most Jews don't even believe in God.

To bring their heads up from the books, and get out into the real world with the people.
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Posted January 10, 2018 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal, adapted from a Facebook comment posted earlier today. All opinions are the author's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain. CC0 Creative Commons photo by mig-ua via Pixabay.