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Communication Constitutes Public Organizations? Communication’s Role in Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
August 17, 2018

Around the early 1980s, communication theory transitioned from the “information transmission” paradigm to the “linguistic turn.” In organizational communication, the “communicative constitution of organization” (CCO) perspective arose to explain how organizations continually reinvent themselves through communication. CCO scholars argue that organizations are created as members use language and texts to co-create the organization’s social reality. Using the CCO perspective, scholars and practitioners can understand how organizations are formed, why organizations behave in certain ways and how the organization will evolve. CCO is a relatively new field and still has many questions, such as how communication constitutes organization and the mechanisms that members use to create the shared organizational reality. However, the CCO perspective can be a fruitful area for public administration research.

Some public administration research uses the CCO perspective. For example, one article argues that better public engagement can be achieved by improving the internal communication channels of an agency. However, there needs to be more public administration research using the CCO perspective – especially as CCO research is evolving rapidly. I suggest the following three research areas which can benefit from the CCO perspective.

“Elmore’s Problem” of Dual Dynamics in Public Policy

In 1979, Dr. Elmore formulated his dual dynamics theory of how decisions are made in the U.S. administrative state. Congress and the Executive Branch set and react to the public policy agenda which results in a flow of information down to the administrative agencies. The priorities and goals are set for the agencies. At the same time, expertise and detailed information about specific policy issues are flowing up from the agencies which influence Congress’ and Executive Branch’s attention and bargaining over the policy agenda. Samuel Workman used the Elmore Problem to guide his research in how Congress and the federal agencies process their communications to solve policy problems. Dr. Workman’s research is valuable and can benefit from the CCO perspective as Congress and federal agencies co-create a shared reality around the policy agenda.

The Coordinated Management of Meaning in Internal and External Communications by Federal Agencies

The Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) arose separately from CCO, but both theories share much in common. Developed by Pearce and Cronen around the mid-70s, CMM has more acceptance among practitioners than academic scholars. Even so, both CMM and CCO are concerned with how communication helps people to develop a shared reality. Combining the tools of CMM with the theoretical foundations of CCO can aid public administration scholars in developing research with practical application in helping agencies to improve their internal and external communications.

Government by Ventriloquism

Francois Cooren proposed his “ventriloquism” variant of CCO to describe how people bring texts and abstract concepts into co-creating the organization’s social reality. Dr. Cooren explains that communicators frequently make other beings say or do things through the communicator’s speech acts. For example, when I was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, managers would often claim to speak for the “rural population” or the “American rural community.” Federal workers in the Defense agencies often justify their decisions because this is what the “warfighter” wants. “The American people” is the stock phrase of all Congressional members.

Ventriloquism also occurs when public administrators claim to speak for policy, law, regulation or the Constitution. Thus, texts and abstract concepts become embodied in the social reality of the agency. Taking the CCO perspective in investigating policy decisions can help the researcher better understand how policies were interpreted and implemented. The ventriloquism variant of CCO can also better illuminate the communication dynamics between Congress, the Executive Branch and the administrative agencies.

The CCO Perspective of Public Policy and Administration

Taylor (1993) writes in “Rethinking the theory of organizational communication: How to read an organization”:

“I have never been able to figure out how there could be an organization in the absence of communication, existing before communication, and on a material plane distinct from it. It seems self-evident to me that organization is a product [italics in original] of communication, and totally dependent on symbolic sense-making through interaction for its mere existence.”

In reviewing the public administration research literature, most scholars recognize and appreciate the role of communication in public policy and the management of public agencies. My purpose in this article is to advocate using another research perspective to understand better how public policy is formed and implemented through communication. CCO is growing as more practitioners from around the world explore the concepts and new applications of CCO. Incorporating the new developments of CCO into public administration research can help increase our understanding of how public administration creates and manages public policy.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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