Saturday, October 6, 2012

Government Communication: The Perils of Playing Defense

Go online any day of the week and you will find incessant complaints about government information - or disinformation as some would say. While obviously corruption is a fact of life, it has been my observation that problems with government communication have mostly to do with fear:

  1. Fear of getting the information wrong or a data discrepancy
  2. Fear of making someone powerful look bad 
  3. Fear of not having enough clearances to release it
  4. Fear of intentional misinterpretation by the media, "bad press"
  5. Fear of some sort of grievance, legal action, or other unintended consequence

Compounding the problem:
  1. Communication staff in government are not adequately trained
  2. There is persistent discomfort with interactive social media
  3. The meaning of communication is understood to be technical rather than contextual
  4. There is discomfort with controversy, leading to superficial communication
  5. Lack of skill and attention to internal engagement and communication around tough issues (e.g. a potential scandal or bad news story - they should always hear it from you first)
  6. Lack of comfort with access to subject matter experts by the media
  7. Lack of clarity around the limits of free speech vs. what constitutes interfering in agency operations
  8. Slow internal approvals processing
  9. Slow FOIA processing
  10. Lack of education and understanding as to the policies around information release
The result is defensive government communication rather than proactive. These behaviors in particular cause the government to be perceived negatively:

  1. Lack of response
  2. Partial response
  3. Technical response
  4. Legalistic response
  5. Dated response

As a government employee working in communications and public affairs for nearly 10 years, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, I have observed a lot of silence and a lot of fear. But I've also seen that most government employees are pretty passionate about giving the public the information they need, and making sure it's accurate.

If transparency is truly still what we want, it seems like there has to be a better way to achieve it. An truly open, collaborative government, that has a reasonable system for protecting sensitive information, and that allows for the free flow of dialogue, is achievable. We just have to want to make it happen.

Note - all opinions are my own.