Photo by Pranav Bhatt via Flickr
Imagine if the federal government employed pilots who couldn't fly. Doctors that couldn't do surgery. Lawyers who couldn't analyze a case. Budget analysts who couldn't add. Computer scientists who couldn't read code. Criminal investigators who could not track a suspect. And so on.
What would happen to the troops overseas absent intelligence analysts at home?
Yet we have no problem with obvious communication blunders on the part of the Federal government. The reason of course is that we do not see the financial cost of poor communication right away, or in a tangible way. But of course they are there. For example:
- Waste, fraud and abuse: Due to duplicative outreach by multiple agencies, i.e. human trafficking campaigns. Due to allowing agencies to buy unnecessary outreach services. Due to excessive reliance on vendors for web design and failure to manage their implementation, as occurred with the launch of the Obamacare system. Of course poorly conceived outreach campaigns and badly designed websites create a situation where thieves can lure the public into paying for what is already free, or giving away information on a copycat website.
- Unmotivated employees, retraining costs, loss of institutional knowledge, and high recruitment costs: Due to a ignoring federal employees as an audience - not only an audience of each individual agency. Due to a systemic lack of upward feedback channels and the threat of retaliation for whistleblowing. Due to a fundamental lack of understanding about what promotes good morale and what doesn't - for example the ATF's recent decision blocking a manuscript on "Fast and Furious." The opposition itself is going to generate a lot of press, which is going to make them look bad, and cause the media to re-visit a scandal dealt with years ago.
- Anti-government sentiment and possibly failure to comply with the law: Due to the failure of government communicators to proactively or defensively respond in crisis situations. Consider the bumbling responses to Edward Snowden's theft of information from NSA, the "incompetence, not malice" Benghazi defense; Kathleen Sebelius' poor performance on the Jon Stewart show regarding Obamacare, leading his calling her a liar. Lack of a plausible explanation for the Department of Justice Associated Press investigation led Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein to excoriate this. Recently, New York Times reporter David Sanger called the current Administration "the most closed, closed, control-freak I've ever encountered."
The preacher Joel Osteen says "don't bring a problem to your boss without also bringing a solution." I work for the federal government, so here is a suggestion.
McKinsey veteran Beth Cobert has been nominated Chief Performance Officer at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a choice that both sides of the aisle appear to welcome.
Respectfully, I suggest setting up an Office of Federal Communications within her purview. It would be situated alongside the Offices of Federal Financial Management; Federal Procurement Policy; E-Government and Information Technology; Performance and Personnel Management; and Information and Regulatory Affairs.
This Office would save money by eliminating duplicate work by individual agencies and it would be funded by the agencies where the money was saved. It would:
- Serve as a liaison between the White House and federal agencies, coordinating official communications internally and externally.
- Establish a governmentwide brand council overseeing communications from visual coordination to standardized content. This would include standard templates and elements for government communication to ensure consistency and comprehensiveness.
- Establish governmentwide structures, guidelines, and ethics rules for federal agency communication including public affairs, information dissemination, websites, social media, mobile and other forms of new media.
- Establish a government speakers' council where any subject matter expert in any agency can sign up to learn how to communicate effectively in the media, and can then be free to explain agency activities within the bounds specified by governmentwide rules.
- Establish a mechanism to review outreach contracts per agency above a certain threshold for signs of waste, fraud and abuse and to discover possible means of consolidation with other agencies.
- Stand up a governmentwide customer service center to include service by email, chat, and telephone staffed by representatives from individual agencies but managed by a single source.
- Centralize and manage open data posting and accessibility via the Web.
- Establish the Federal Communication Training Institute, dedicated to enhancing employee skills and ensuring that people representing the government meet qualifying standards.
- Establish a governmentwide Internal Communications Network within which employees can form a broad social network, communicate and collaborate simply and effectively.
- Formalize the Federal Communicators Network as a network of Agency communicators represented in the Office so that decisions can be coordinated at the Agency level and customized in a way that makes sense for each particular mission.
Communication is a fundamental management activity. And yet communication is ignored in a fundamental, systemic, proactive way. A recent poll stated that less than half of Americans, 49% (an "all time low") think the government is capable of handling problems.
If we really want to serve the public well, prepare for unforeseen crises, and reduce unnecessary spending at the same time, we should stop ignoring the hidden costs of communication incompetence by the government. And set a goal of increasing public confidence in our reliability to at least 75%.
* All opinions my own.