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Public Sector Communication in an Evolving Society

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

By Aroon P. Manoharan
February 9, 2024

Public communication is increasingly recognized as an essential component of public policymaking and public administration functions. As governments work towards improving the quality of life of their citizens, there is an increased need to communicate regularly to their constituents about their policies and programs. Yet, in many cases, information on citizen-oriented initiatives is not communicated effectively to those in need of the services, thus resulting in lesser interest and utilization of public services. Public communication is essential for a strong and healthy democratic society and to build trust among citizens. Public administration professionals and institutions have a key role to play in developing robust channels for one-way and two-way communication with various stakeholders.

Communication is key to becoming a good leader and effective manager in the public and nonprofit sector. This has been highlighted by practitioners and scholars in public administration for several decades. In their book, Communication in Public Administration: The Need For Skill- Based Education. Review of Policy Research (1989) Edith Kelley Manns and William L. Waugh suggest public administration programs to mirror the emphasis of communication courses in business and related programs. In his 1985 entry in Public Administration Quarterly titled “Toward closing the confidence gap: An alternative approach to communication between public and government”, J. Arthur Heise notes that the focus of media is more on mass communication and proposes the viability of public communication as an accepted career in public administration. In his 2009 article in the Journal of Public Affairs Education titled “The return of public relations to the public administration curriculum?” Mordecai Lee reiterates that direct public reporting by public administrators can bridge the growing gap between government and citizens.

In the age of social media and misinformation, the onus is on the public administrator to directly communicate their decisions and actions to the relevant stakeholders and address any questions or concerns they may have, as well as to ensure public opinion is shaped by truthful information. Public communication involves a fine balancing act between various actors such as the media, political leaders, think tanks, academics and others. More importantly, they need to overcome the traditional stereotype of government communicators as being reluctant to publicize their actions. While the study of communication progressed in other disciplines such as political communication or organizational communication, there was an inherent hesitancy to recognize public sector communication as a specialized area of study.

As citizenry becomes tech-savvy, the twenty-first century requires a proactive communication approach from public administrators at all levels of government. Expectations are increasing for every public administrator to possess basic communication skills and the ability to develop communication strategies or plans to get the word out on their programs. It is also important to acquire the relevant digital skills to reach to their target audiences. The emergence of digital technologies is providing several channels of communication for public administrators. They need to understand the strategic uses of specific social media channels and use them appropriately based on the preference of their stakeholders. They need to ensure that the messages posted on the social media channels are consistent and integrated with the content on the official website.

The pandemic was a crucial moment for the public sector globally, and many agencies have undertaken transformational actions to address the needs of the public, particularly with regard to establishing digital mediums for communication and interaction. Cities and towns began to instantly offer online access to their meetings and public forum and interacted more with the media to share critical information with the public. Such momentum needs to be sustained to encourage more citizens to participate in government decision-making and provide feedback on important policies and projects. This can be better attained by educating public administration students and professionals with relevant communication and engagement skills.

Public organization and entities today are creating specific positions related to public communication such as public information officer, public engagement officer, citizen participation officer, etc. Some entities are being innovative with positions like chief storytellers, brand manager, etc. Such trends further establish the need to integrate communication courses and certificates in the public administration curriculum.

MPA and MPP programs have an important role to play in imparting the relevant communication wisdom on to their students. Public administration departments can partner with professional organizations to promote webinars, presentations and publications on communication topics. They can also collaborate with other academic departments to develop public communication courses and certificates that inculcate multiple perspectives related to sustainable development, emergency management, media, journalism and others. It is important to note that the NASPAA competencies place an emphasis on communication with regard to participation in the policy process, applying a public service perspective and communicating to an evolving workforce. This article emphasizes the need for more focus on public communication in public administration, both in academic pedagogy and research literature.

Author: Aroon P. Manoharan is associate professor in the Department of Public Service and Healthcare Administration at Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University, Boston. He heads the National Center for Public Performance (NCPP), a public service center dedicated to improving performance in the public and nonprofit organizations. His research interests include digital government, performance measurement, strategic planning, public communications, and comparative public administration. [email protected]

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