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Smart Communication for Program Implementation and Mission Success

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

By Aroon P. Manoharan and Mordecai Lee
May 10, 2024

At its heart, public administration is about implementation of government policies and programs. This is a crucial stage in the public policy process and entails multiple managerial decisions and actions at all levels of organization. Implementation involves formal and informal actors, and it is important to communicate consistently and regularly to ensure that implementation actions are aligned to program goals. Communication is also important for citizens and stakeholders to ensure access and use of public programs. In many instances, the public is not aware of programs that are relevant to them. This is the public administration equivalent of the quip, “if a tree fell in a forest and no one was there to hear it, did it make a sound?” Too often in public administration, communication is an afterthought rather than a key step in the implementation process.

It is important to untangle multiple motivations embedded in governmental communication. Given that we are operating in the civic sphere, we have some obligations of communication that are inherent to government in a democracy. We need to be transparent, accountable to the public-at-large (as well as legislative oversight) and routinely report to the public what we’re doing. However, these motivations are distinctly separate from program implementation. Ditto for a sly form of communication to help elevate the agency’s favorability ratings (in the hopes of gaining some leverage in legislative decisions). These are all forms of communication, but none deal with policy implementation.

Public communication needs to be strategic, succinct and smart to ensure mission success. At their best, these can be catchy and attractive to gain the immediate attention of citizens, especially in emergency and life-threatening situations. However, American culture might also be a tad too action-oriented. We have action heroes, action movies, action games. Smart communication entails preceding action with some degree to planning and thoughtfulness. Reduced to the most succinct encapsulation: What information are you wanting to convey and who do you want to convey it to?

With increasing use of social media and digital technology, public administrators can be more innovative with their communication for effective implementation (Manoharan & Rangarajan, 2023). We are practically in an omnipresent and near saturation of a media environment. There are multiple (and constantly changing) communication channels and platforms. When government communication is targeted to a specific intended audience, it needs to be on the platforms and media most congruent for that audience.

We suggest that there are several distinct purposes that can be the underlying motives for program implementation through smart communication. These include responsiveness to clients and customers (“you can change your appointment online”); seeking to increase utilization of agency programs and services (“Take Back Day”), public service campaigns to affect behavior (“Click it or ticket”), obtaining the cooperation of citizens as the eyes and ears of the agency (“See something, say something”) and seeking voluntary cooperation with laws and regulations (“If you’re speeding, we’ll see you before you see us”) (Lee, 2022).

In the last few years, we’ve seen some innovative examples of smart communication as part of program implementation. The park rangers at the Grand Canyon noticed too many hikers facing heat exhaustion every summer. The mantra of “drink, drink, drink” didn’t seem to fully accomplish the job. So that started preventive search and rescue, including offering salty snacks and water at key places on difficult paths. Avoiding a problem was so much better (and less expensive) than search and rescue emergencies. When the 10-digit hotline of the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline was replaced by a 3-digital “988,” there was a sudden surge in calls and messages. This seemingly minor change in how-to for access had enormous payback in facilitating usage. A state patrol offered information and stickers for truckers to be on alert for human trafficking and what to do. Medicare added “Scam Alert” information on the back of every envelope it mails out: “Hang up! Do not give them money or personal information!” A municipality placed vending machines in public locations with free Narcan. For each local project, EPA placed paid advertising about a “Community Involvement Coordinator” including the person’s name, phone number and email.

Smart cities, smart governments and smart policies are admirable buzz words used for responses to the governance issues of today. Now it is also time to add one more, smart communication as the premise for public administrators focusing on using communication to attain program goals and for mission success.

For example: What works? And what doesn’t? How do you know? Have you tested it? Have you consulted with affected stakeholders? Are you using the platform and medium most appropriate for each audience? Is your message concise? Does it convey the key information in an instant? Is it placed as close as possible to the behavior or action in question? Is it memorable?

These are the kinds of questions that management needs to consider before issuing a media release, posting on X or placing a video on YouTube. A smart communication strategy can often be the difference between policy implementation being a success or a failure.


Author: Dr. Aroon P. Manoharan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Service and Healthcare Administration, Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University, Boston. He is also the Director of the National Center for Public Performance at Suffolk University. His research interests include digital government, performance measurement, strategic planning, public communication, administrative capacity, and comparative public administration. His books include E-Government and Information Technology Management: Concepts and Best Practices; and E-Government and Websites: A Public Solutions Handbook. He is the recipient of the Jeanne Marie Col Leadership Award, Paul Volcker Junior Scholar Award, and John Carlin Public Administration Scholarship. He received his Ph.D. from the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), Rutgers University-Newark, and chairs the ASPA Section on International and Comparative Administration (SICA).

Author: Dr. Mordecai Lee is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he taught for 22 years. He has written 11 books published by university presses, 70 journal articles, and a dozen chapters in edited books, and has edited three books that are collections of his writings. He is interested in public administration PR, government history, and nonprofit management. He earned a PhD in public administration from Syracuse University. Before his academic career, he was Legislative Assistant to a Member of Congress, elected to the Wisconsin Legislature’s Assembly for three terms and Senate for two, and directed a faith-based nonprofit agency.

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