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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Appropriate Communication for the Civil Service

When it comes to government communication we have come a long way from ten years ago. For example, as a rule, most people I encounter agree strongly in the concept of “user-centered content” for consumers of government content. The GSA’s 18F has a great online guide applicable to any agency, and plain language is the law
 
However, we still seem to lack clarity around what constitutes appropriate civil service communication. I see this periodically in articles about government communication, and in particular in articles that declare our work to be inherently propagandistic. 
 
Just the opposite is true. First, every year, government-wide agency appropriations prohibit lobbying, publicity or propaganda. But of course there are always problems, gray areas, and controversies – see for example this Congressional Research Service white paper from 2005, and this white paper from 2016. (And yes, there are exceptions, when you have to proactively market or communicate about a product or service.) 
 
It is interesting, if you look back:
  • When I joined the government in 2003, it was considered appropriate to provide highly detailed, technical, difficult-to-understand information that could never be called inaccurate.
  • As time passed, we went the other way and there was a heavy emphasis on “good news.” 
 Both are not helpful. 
 
The basic sub-activities involved in producing a “good message,” from the perspective of civil service communication, include:
  1. Providing data
  2. Explaining why it matters
  3. Positioning the facts under the umbrella of the mission
  4. Admitting to problems, and
  5. Taking responsibility for fixing them.
For example: 
“Agents arrested 1,000 people for X crime this year, which is 50% more than last year, primarily because of improved detection technologies purchased under the ABC initiative. The initiative started in 2015 as part of the broader ‘Smarter Ways To Stop Crime’ Program. The technology is not considered optimal as yet, because of several flaws that can yield a false positive. However, a plan is underway to resolve these issues by 3Q 2017.” 
 
The GSA offers a helpful guide with four questions (full document attached) to ask yourself before embarking on a contracting arrangement with an Advertising & Integrated Marketing Solutions (AIMS) provider. They are also useful for considering the appropriateness of all civil service communications, in my opinion: 
  1. “Does the requirement involve self-aggrandizement or “puffery” of an agency, its personnel, or its activities? If the answer is yes, the services shall not be solicited under AIMS.”
  2. “Is the purpose of the requirement “purely partisan in nature” (i.e., it is “designed to aid a political party or candidate”) If the answer is yes, the services shall not be solicited under AIMS.”
  3. “Is the purpose of the requirement “covert propaganda” (i.e., the communication does not reveal that government appropriations were expended to produce it). If the answer is yes, the services shall not be solicited under AIMS.”
  4. “Is the statement of work so broadly written that it could be interpreted to condone or encourage any of the activities described above? If the answer is yes, the statement of work/RFQ is not yet ready for issuance. Address how the statement of work addresses these issues to ensure acceptable contractor performance/deliverables.”
In the end, what you want is information that meets the needs of the public for clarity, but that also involves what I call “good messaging.”

Usually of course you hear that “messaging” is a dirty word, like “spin,” but in reality you have to provide some context to whatever data you’re sharing.

The key is to keep it accurate, and balanced. 

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Originally posted to the Federal Communicators Network listserv on 3/29/2017. All opinions my own.