As Federal communicators, the single most important thing we do is not to “say things well.” It is, rather, to ensure that important things are said accurately in the first place.
Of course, most of us do not sit at the table when decisions are made about “important things” to say. But we can ask questions to obtain answers to that question in writing.
The good Federal communicator has to be willing to say, “Forgive me but I need some clarification. What is this program about? How does it connect to the mission?”
The good Federal communicator has to be willing to say, “Maybe I missed the announcement of this initiative. Can someone point me to where I can find it in our strategy?”
This is not to say that you should be lazy, and fail to do the necessary work of research yourself, for example by looking on the Intranet at the most recent strategic plan of your agency. You should be monitoring news clips offered internally at the very least.
It is to say that Federal communication, by its very nature, can easily deteriorate from a mission-driven accountability mechanism to “fluff,” a waste of everyone’s time and money, used improperly for propaganda and hype.
Listen to your feelings. I had a supervisor once, who advised: “If you get that wonky feeling, it probably means that something is wrong.”
By asking questions, you force the organization to stop and consider how it appears to others. The reflection itself is powerful, and you must emphasize clearly and consistently what motivates you. It is not to be a pain in the @#$ (although maybe you are one anyway), but rather to deliver valuable staff work to the agency you serve.
You want to emphasize that the reputation of the agency hinges on the perception of the taxpayer. And that what you don’t want is people coming back later, asking: “How did that program make any sense?”
As a Federal communicator you probably are not high up on the food chain. And you might think you don’t have the right to say anything about anything. In fact, some might call you insubordinate or disloyal for doing so.
Here’s something that might surprise you: Most of the time, people appreciate that you cared enough to really think and ask. If you are doing your job well, you must be a supportive critic. It goes without saying that challenging authority appropriately is a job requirement if you are to excel.
You must pay attention to the details. You cannot go by “someone said that someone said it’s OK.” That won’t wash.
If you have access to collaboration technology, I urge you to use it, particularly a shared system where team members can upload documents for background, review and reflection. Collaboration technology means that everyone’s input is recorded, and a number provided to every task you work on in the shared space.
Of course, technology alone without standards is fairly useless. You probably already know that plain English is a must, and maybe your agency is still struggling with it. But there are many other ways to establish that you’ve provided a product that can be relied upon as reasonably accurate. Here are some criteria to consider:
Document creation date (and last updated) date is listed
Document describes which law, regulation, statute, policy, etc. requirement is being met
Free of spelling and grammatical errors
Links to further information are provided
Method of determining data is provided (e.g. “accurate” can mean a lot of things)
Raw data is provided where possible
Reader is offered a way to challenge, correct and/or comment the information being provided
Responsive to the issue at hand
Supplemental comments are offered where relevant
You can append these standards to your concurrence sheet—your own invention or the standard one used by your agency. It may seem like a minor bureaucratic procedure, even a nuisance, but the concurrence sheet is one of the most powerful tools in a Federal communicator’s arsenal.
The concurrence sheet is where all the people who signed off on a document must ink their approval. So that later, if there is ever a question as to who agreed and what it was they were thinking, someone can research the matter and find the list of people involved.
Sadly, it is a fact of bureaucratic life that some people don’t like to leave a paper trail. I remember hearing someone say that, years ago: “No paper trail.”
I also remember being at a training session on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), at a different agency. At one point, talking about how “embarrassment” is not a reason to redact a document, the presenter said, “If you don’t want to be embarrassed about something later, don’t write it down.”
But that was bad advice. You should write down how you made your decision, how you got from Point A to Point B. Doing so can prevent a lot of misunderstanding, and even bad press.
Let’s face it. No matter what your grade level is, you exist in a chain of command and as such your power is limited. However, you can always do three things: Find the written standards, find the written processes, and ask questions when you can’t do either.
In a world where your opinion is a good as mine—where people literally believe they exist in different factual realities from one another—asking “how” rather than “what” can lead get us to a better “what.” It is a way to unify colleagues, in a non-inflammatory fashion, toward the goal of “good communication,” even when they have varying levels of knowledge and power, and diverse opinions about how an initiative should proceed.
I wrote this post because I realize how difficult it’s become to stay motivated as a Federal communicator. The discouragement can be crushing. The pace of change seems to be nonstop.
Nevertheless, the Federal government would be at a loss without you. So keep on doing what you’re doing. It matters. It’s important. Even (and especially) if it’s challenging.
If it weren’t a challenge to communicate well, communication would not be so important.