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Training Public Administrators to Become Effective Communicators

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

By Aroon P. Manoharan
March 29, 2024

It is becoming increasingly essential for public administrators to possess effective communication skills to inform and engage constituents in the policymaking process. MPA and MPP programs play a significant role in equipping future leaders with these skills through their training and coursework. Research on the pedagogy of communication in public administration courses has indicated a significant gap between classroom teachings and workplace demands. However, programs are gradually integrating communication courses and topics in their curricula, and many are considering such options for the future.

A recent study conducted by Manoharan and Rangarajan (2023) highlights the trends on how public communication is being taught in MPA and MPP programs and discusses its relevance for training future public administrators and policymakers. A total of 119 courses were identified from the 74 institutions considered for the study. More than a third of these courses had “communication” in their title, followed by other frequently occurring words such as media, marketing, data and storytelling. The courses with communication titles prioritized specific topics such as strategic communication, organizational communication, administrative communication and leadership communication. More than two-thirds of the courses were core courses, and some of the elective courses were offered by other departments in the universities. The study also mapped the course titles to the five NASPAA competencies as they directly or indirectly emphasize communication and related topics.

Competency 1 reflects the ability to lead and manage organizations, and this requires effective communication skills to reach out to internal employees and external stakeholders. Competency 2 focuses on participating and contributing to the public policy process—a crucial step in this process is to engage and build consensus among stakeholders. For Competency 3, the ability to think critically and solve public problems is being increasingly influenced by data-driven decision making. Competency 4 advances a public service perspective and addresses issues of ethics, fiscal responsibility, transparency, public reporting of policy actions and promoting the public value of scientific findings. Competency 5 directly emphasizes communicating and interacting with a changing society. This would include intercultural, cross-cultural and interpersonal communications.

The study also analyzed the course descriptions to identify the most frequently occurring terms and the top three were strategic communications, public relations and strategic planning. There were mentions of topics related to social media, public intervention and crisis communications. Many courses included a writing component in their weekly topics, a crucial skill for public administrators at all levels of government. There was also considerable focus on communications for nonprofits, especially with marketing and public relations.

The syllabi for some of the courses were obtained to further examine the course objectives and nature of assignments. The authors categorized the assignments into oral, written and visual communications. The assignments focused on oral communications and train students to prepare policy advocacy speech in a persuasive manner. The written communication assignments included policy memos, letters, press release, op-eds, narrative stories and blog posts. Courses also focused on developing and implementing communication strategies to identify the stakeholders and deliver key information. For visual communication assignments, students were required to create infographics, print ads, video ads and learn visual presentation skills. For those who do not attend MPA and MPP programs, there are many certificate programs that focus on bridging the gap in training in public communications.

Public communication can no longer be an afterthought; it needs to be a mandatory part of government functions. The recent crisis and emergencies have accentuated the role of effective communication tools and strategies to provide essential information to the public. Governments also adopted nudging techniques and established nudge units to influence the behavior of citizens towards safer and healthier choices. Public agencies are being creative with social media use to gain the attention of citizen users and engage them on important public issues. There are many issues to be addressed regarding the use of social media tools by government. The government departments need to ensure that their posts are coordinated and consistent with their messaging. Social media policies indicating the Do’s and Don’ts, should be communicated to the employees.

Cities and towns are branding themselves to attract residents, tourists and economic investments, and branding is also being recognized as a governance strategy to include residents in defining the identity and vision of the region. Governments are also using storytelling and narrative approaches to frame their communication and better connect with their stakeholders. There are increasing communication related positions in government such as Public Information Officers (PIOs), Public Engagement Officer and Citizen Participation Officer. The integration of communication in public administration pedagogy can open new employment and growth opportunities for MPA and MPP students.

Public communication presents various innovative strategies for governments to better connect with their citizens. Public administrators need to learn the relevant communication skills and competencies to utilize these strategies effectively. This begins within the classroom of public administration and public policy programs with curricula consisting of communication courses and topics.

Author: Dr. Aroon P. Manharan is an Associate Professor Director for the National Center for Public Performance at Suffolk University. His research interests include e-government, performance measurement, strategic planning, public communication, administrative capacity, and comparative public administration. His research employs an international comparative focus, and he was involved in e-government projects in Kigali (Rwanda), Prague (Czech Republic), Sofia (Bulgaria), Cape Town (South Africa), and India. His recent books include E-Government and Information Technology Management: Concepts and Best Practices; and E-Government and Websites: A Public Solutions Handbook. He is the Director of the National Center for Public Performance (NCPP), and had directed the Digital Governance in Municipalities Worldwide Surveys and the U.S. States and Municipalities E-Governance Surveys.

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