Monday, July 13, 2009

A National “Communicating” Strategy

Periodically, I review my older blog posts to see if I’ve changed my mind on something or if I want to jaw on a pet issue again. Today, I went back to a post from January 2008 where I laid out my fantasy strategy for improving the way government communicates with its citizens. That post was a follow-up to a white paper I had written and sent to every member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which was evaluating the reauthorization of the E-Gov Act. Well, I never heard boo from a single member of that Committee – you win some, and you lose some. But as I went through the post, I thought, “this is still good stuff.” The only thing I’d change is the title. Instead of calling it, “What’s Missing From E-Gov? The Mandate to Communicate,” I’d call it, “What We Need Is a National Communicating Strategy.

Government’s communication problems aren’t limited to the way it provides services online. It’s more pervasive. Citizens often just can’t understand what government is saying…in publications, on the phone, on the internet. If the public can’t understand our services because we don’t explain them well or if the public can’t use our services because they’re too complicated or if the public doesn’t know about our services because we haven’t gone to them to tell them, then we aren’t serving effectively. If we don’t communicate effectively, we don’t serve effectively. Those concepts are inextricably linked.

Too often, government focuses on process – not results. We can tweak and tune our communication processes all we want; but if we aren’t communicating effectively with our audiences, it’s all for naught.

How to fix it? Government needs a comprehensive “communicating” strategy…a strategy that improves communication processes within the context of improving results. Are we getting the job done? Does the public understand what we say the first time we say it? Were they able to learn or do, based on what they read or heard? Are they able to use our services easily, without help? Are there citizens who walk away from, or avoid, our services because they just don’t understand them? Are we using the right delivery mechanisms (websites, print, phone, new media, etc.) to reach the intended audiences? Are we reaching out in the right ways to the right audiences?

I’d like to see Government work with Pew and/or other researchers to find out how we’re doing – are citizens able to understand what we say? - and how we could do better. Based on those outcomes, I’d like to see agencies consolidate and coordinate communication efforts within and across government, based on what the public wants and needs, cost effectiveness, and common sense. I’d like to see them prune and sharpen and restructure accordingly. Test the changes before implementing them permanently, and keep testing and re-testing to make sure they’re still achieving the results we want.

I’d like to see communications professionals and citizen service experts (web content managers and experts, new media directors, public affairs officers, experts in public engagement, plain language experts, writers, audience analysts), both inside and outside government, brought in/put in charge of getting this right. If that includes public/private ventures and/or partnerships with other levels of government (federal, state, local), that’s all the better.

I’d like to see government establish performance measures in terms of results:

  • How many more citizens did we serve because we are communicating better and because we improved our outreach?
  • Did we reduce the time it took them to get the service?
  • Were they able to understand/use it on the first try?
  • Could they get help quickly if they couldn’t use it on the first try?
  • Did we keep looking for breakdowns, and – when we found them – did we fix them quickly?

And, of course and absolutely – I’d like to see government involve the public in this strategic planning process. Heavily and routinely. Asking for both their experience and their ideas. And not just from your offices in Washington DC or through surveys. Get out of your offices and actually talk to the public, and listen to them. Communicating to improve communicating.

I think we need a national communicating strategy…a strategy that focuses on results. A strategy that shows that government cares that citizens can really use the services we provide. A strategy that addresses the question: are we really communicating?

1 comment:

Gwynne said...

Thanks, Candi, as always for a good post. I would offer a tweak to your strategy, tho. It's less a communicating strategy than a doing/facilitating strategy. Meshes better with your most-excellent performance measures. Let's make gov PERFORM!