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The Public Administrator’s Communication Challenge

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

By James Bourey
November 17, 2023

Everyone engaged in public administration can agree that great communication with employees is critical. The challenge of effectively communicating grows with the size of the organization. Along with the shear number of employees, many levels of supervision in large organizations further complicates the task of clearly delivering important messages to everyone. Moreover, misinformation that gets generated in large organizations can be confounding and frustrating. So, what are the keys to ensuring that not only is your message received, but also that you care about their well being and appreciate the work that they do? The simple answer is to use every means possible, including meetings and written communication.

As a city and county manager with thousands of employees, I established an extensive set of regular meetings with employees at all levels. This included a set of meetings with my assistant administrators and department directors, the department directors meeting with their managers and the managers meeting with their employees. Each of these meetings took place on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. They encompassed all employees. While this may have seemed rudimentary, I was surprised to find that when I assumed the Hennepin County Administrator’s position with 10,000 employees, very few of these meetings were taking place on a regular basis.

As important as this formal meeting structure is, it is in no way sufficient. In Hennepin County, we also established quarterly meetings with all management level staff. This included approximately 250 people. In addition, we held semi-annual meetings with all manager and supervisory level people. We did this in two different groups to ensure coverage at work sites. This encompassed about 1,300 people. In addition to these meetings, I would attend the meetings of the departments from time to time.

With a somewhat smaller staff of about 4,000 employees when serving as the Newport News City Manager, we held employee forums every six months. This involved two different meetings each time, spending up to two and one-half hours at each meeting answering employee questions. Any question was fair game. Yes, standing before employees and answering all their questions for that long is a challenge but it was greatly appreciated.

Also, while at Newport News, I met with employees from various departments on a regular basis, particularly, the police department with which we were going through some challenging times. As many other managers do, I held weekly brownbag informal get togethers with any employee who wanted to attend.

But wait, there needs to be more. It is critical that managers get one-on-one face time with employees. Meeting with employees at their worksite is tremendously valuable. During my time in Hennepin County, I estimate I met with about 7,500 people in their office or in the field. Not only was this valuable in bringing key messaging to employees, but I also learned a lot in the process.

By now, some may be thinking that this is one heck of a lot of meetings and a big commitment of time and energy. Indeed it is, but I maintain that this level of direct engagement with employees is essential.

In addition to meetings, formal and informal written communication is also vital. This is especially true when there is a major change in policy or organizational structure that affects employees such as a change in employee benefits, raises or other compensation issues. As an example, when I was the City Manager of Greenville, South Carolina, we had to substantially change the retiree health coverage to address an impending financial crisis due to the system in place at the time. A written communication through email and paper where employees did not have access to a city email account was vital. In this instance, communication with retirees was also essential. This included meetings as well as written communication. Standing before a large retiree gathering and telling them about the health benefit changes was not the most pleasant experience. However, it made a difference to their understanding of why the changes needed to be made and how they would still be covered for most of their medical costs.

Another example was when I was the Senior Assistant County Manager for Hillsborough County, Florida and we were undertaking a major reorganization of the ten departments I was responsible for. We sent out a weekly newsletter to all employees in the departments, updating them on the progress of the changes and decisions that were being made.

These personal examples are used not to say that I was always 100% effective in communicating with staff, but rather to demonstrate that the rigor communication needs must be pursued. It is not enough to talk to department directors and expect your message will be delivered as you would want. In fact, I will guarantee that it will not be accurately represented. For managers of large organizations looking to not only ensure that information is delivered, but that their employees know they have a sincere interest in them as people, frequent and direct communication is essential.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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