Communication
May 7, 2012

Communicating how we communicate

Depending on what stage you are in your public service career, the ideas you conjured up when someone mentions public service and communication will vary greatly.

If you’ve been around for a while, you will probably think about a system of communication that could be considered “risk averse” – a system of communication that has built in checks and balances to ensure that the right information is being shared at the right time. In this system, seasoned public servants understand that these checks and balances ensure nothing is said that will get anyone in trouble – even a necessary component, I dare say, of any type of public sector communication.

As a result, we have a public sector used to the norms and rationales of measured, vetted communication. It’s not uncommon to hear stories about people who are so afraid of misspeaking or getting someone in trouble, that we typically stick to the facts, and sometimes only after the fact. This approach to external communication can inevitably mould the norms associated with internal communication, whereby feedback provided to organizational leaders is also measured, fact-heavy and sometimes not openly shared.

When I asked a co-worker, recently graduated from university, what he would do to improve the public service, his response was “to improve our organizational ability to speak truth to power.”

He cited the example of sitting in on a lessons-learned meeting to discuss a recent project. He was angry about the fact that everything that we had to say was diluted beyond the point of recognition, and angry about the fact that management will never get to know what the real issues are because people would rather put their heads down and try to make it work.

It dawned on me that a second result of the our measured communication style and the understood norms some of us might have, have a much greater impact on those new to the public service.

This group (who through no fault of their own only see the vetting cycles and are not aware of the other mechanisms in place) feel frustrated by a processes in which a final product is so full of key messages and safe terms that it’s possible the original intention of the communication is completely lost. They are unaware of the other ways in which the organization has provided for open and honest communication (both internally and externally).

It is only after almost a decade of public service that I realize that there are mechanisms in place that allow for the open free-flow of communication that one might not understand if you’re new to the organization. The accepted norms associated with the measured communication are accepted because we become aware of other mechanisms that allow for open and honest communication.

Communication has changed greatly over the last 20 years. Information is typically one click away and available on multiple platforms – talk, text, in-person. These mechanisms have changed the expectations of both the public and the civil service. An individual who is used to instant feedback and dialogue from the four corners of the world will probably be frustrated at the “don’t rock the boat mentality” that seems to exist in the public service.

Isn’t it ironic that the way to get this next generation around their frustration is by communicating with them? To ensure that they are aware of the reasons and norms we have as an organization, and why they are in place? The expectations this generation have are a result of the environment they grew up in, and the only way to bridge the gap between expectations and reality is provide them with context, or a reason so that they can make sense of it all.

The public service can also review and update the principles that guide how it communicates, both internally and externally. Developing principles that bring a common understanding to how an organization wants to communicate – accepted allowances for sharing of information and gathering feedback, the available channels for providing and collecting feedback and how that feedback will ultimately be considered – and ensuring that the tools for this type of communication support the principles is extremely important.

This isn’t to say that the public service will not be criticized for the way it communicates – that will always be a problem we face. However, our current approach to communication can lead to distrust because, at a time when you can choose your communication medium and information is one click away, it’s understandable to think that the expectations of those we communicate with have changed (especially when dealing with the next generation who are inherently cynical about most things). Letting someone know that you can’t tell them something at this point in time, or that you simply don’t know the answer, would go a long way to building that trust and helping them to understand.

These principles should also apply to internal communication – if we truly value feedback, make sure enough mechanisms are in place so that people understand when and how to provide that feedback. Whether it’s the creation of bodies such as the office of colleague satisfaction, training staff at all levels on employee engagement and communication techniques or simply having experienced employees mentor the younger ones – these tools will undoubtedly help.

Such things won’t change our system dramatically. But they will allow us to keep proven practices for communication while incorporating new techniques that meet the changing environment. I hope it will show enough commitment to speaking power to truth that we’ll keep the next generation injecting the public service with not only their enthusiasm, but also their bright ideas and a new way of looking at how we serve the people of this country.

Corwin Troje is an executive assistant to the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Employment and Training Division in Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

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