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More Transparency Needed for Federal Communicators to Build Public Trust

As a federal communicator, are you able to share as much information and data with the public as needed, or is real transparency just the latest buzzword?

Do you often run into antiquated bureaucratic stonewalls and other internal obstacles when trying to foster greater transparency and open government?

If so, this is likely problematic not only for your own agency but also for the overall public perception of the federal government — which remains dismally low.

Advance Approval & Access

Meaningful transparency will only succeed if and when all federal communicators are empowered from the top-down by agency executive leadership.

In today’s fast evolving digital/mobile world, our jobs require us to have seamless access to all necessary and relevant information and data.

And beyond access, we also must have advance approval to share certain kinds of information in certain kinds of situations in an expeditious manner. We need to keep up with the breakneck speed of the 24/7 breaking news cycle and crisis communication in the hyper-paced information age.

For example, when a damaging social media item goes viral there really is no time to spare in responding. Every minute lost is another minute in which hundreds or thousands of people potentially consume the negative information and pass it on via Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Put simply, front-line federal communicators need more access to key data and information to bolster agency transparency and citizen engagement.

  • Talk to your manager/supervisor about challenging communications situations that might arise, and agree on a response in advance.

Then, if and when one of those situations occur, you can implement the agreed upon response(s) rather than waiting for extra bureaucratic layers of review and approval. This is true whether you work as a public affairs specialist, a social media manager, or oversee internal communications.

Transparency Begets Public Trust
In short, transparency is what builds and repairs public trust in government — and today we need more of it than ever.

This is critically important considering the ongoing insidious climate of fed bashing and the demonization of government for partisan political reasons.

How can any democratic form of government work best for the people when the people don’t trust or respect it?

Unfortunately, today it appears we are treading on dangerous ground.

Gov Communicators are Part of the Solution

Agency heads and executive leadership throughout government need to recognize — if they have not already — that government communicators are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

However, we need the powers-that-be to “help us help you” by putting transparency principles into more widespread practice. We need to eliminate and move beyond ingrained institutional obstacles to obtain and strategically disseminate information, while also engaging the public/stakeholders in an open dialogue.

Again, talk to your manager/supervisor about streamlining cumbersome and outdated internal procedures to obtain faster clearance and approval when it counts.

Try getting ahead of the curve by being less reactive and more proactive, both internally and externally. Don’t sit around waiting for a potential communications crisis before you take action.

  • Have proactive communications plans and strategies in place to address hot-button issues before they rise to the crisis level.

If federal communicators don’t have open access on the inside, how can we foster greater transparency and open government on the outside?

If requested information is not forthcoming internally there should be good reasons why, such as national security, statutory confidentiality provisions, etc.

  • Talk to your manager/supervisor in advance about what kinds of typically (or rarely) requested information may not be disclosed, and how such requests should be handled (short of the tedious FOIA process which should be a last resort).

In essence, granting federal communicators more access from the inside-out results in greater transparency and open government. It also allows us to work more effectively, efficiently and expeditiously with “win-win” outcomes for the agency and the public it serves.

It’s important to reiterate that real transparency goes beyond words or principles. It must be systematically put into practice from the top-down and permeate all levels of communications policies and practices.

If not, then public trust in government will remain fleeting.


A similar version of this post first appeared in the Federal Communicators Network Blog

* All views and opinions are those of the author only.

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Dick Davies

Yes, and…

I’m constantly anecdoted by how people are using existing existing channels in ways I didn’t expect and also using totally new channels. It’s a real endurance event for communicators to get in front of their audiences more effectively.

Yet if we don’t, we’re “not communicating.”

Thank you!

Kathryn David

Thank you so much for posting this! Having lived in Ukraine, a government with little transparency, I believe that Americans undervalue the importance of transparency in becoming an engaged citizen. Here’s hoping your post encourages agencies to follow your advice!

David B. Grinberg

Thanks very much for your comments, Dick and Kathryn. It’s nice to know that others share this view.

FYI — from White House blog (Friday afternoon 8/16, ICYMI):

Progress Toward Opening Government Data Resources


  • “In May, the President signed an Executive Order to make government-held data more accessible to the public and to entrepreneurs and others as fuel for innovation, economic growth, and government efficiency.
  • Under the terms of the Executive Order and a new Open Data Policy all newly generated government data will be required to be made available in open, machine-readable formats, greatly enhancing their accessibility and usefulness, while ensuring privacy and security.
  • Today, we are building on this effort by releasing additional resources to help Federal agencies make data open and available in machine-readable form. Specifically, we are releasing additional guidance to agencies about how to inventory and publish their data assets, new FAQs about how open data requirements apply to Federal acquisition and grant-making processes, and a framework for creating measurable goals that agencies can use to track progress.
  • All of this is openly available on the Project Open Data website, where additional case studies and free software tools for the agencies are also available.”
Dannielle Blumenthal

This is a timely and important post. It’s not always in the individual communicator’s hands to achieve transparency though. As a group, office, division and working with senior leadership it becomes more possible. I’ve listed some suggestions here and hope others contribute theirs as well.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the awesome tips, Dannielle, which are very much appreciated. You offer some excellent suggestions which GovLoopers should also check out.

To paraphrase a throwback movie I grew up with (does anyone remember this?):

Read it…Learn it…Live it.

Carol Kruse

David, thank you for opening this conversation on what appears to be a difficult topic for many in government…difficult, but very important! I’m not sure why openness is so frightening for some; perhaps they immediately think of difficult communication experiences and don’t want to provide the opportunity for more of those — when, in fact, most of those difficult experiences likely happened because we didn’t communicate openly. There is nothing more frustrating than the proverbial “black box” for people who are interested and engaged in issues, and many government policies create, or at least provide opportunity to create, black boxes around what we do.

For others, controlling information is a control issue. The “information is power” mentality still reigns in some places.

I see changes being directed and supported by top leaders (President Obama and others) — but often the message doesn’t make it to the bottom levels of organizations, it just sort of evaporates somewhere along the way. I don’t know what the most effective tools are for changing the culture or mindset around sharing more with our customers/public — including open communications in performance evaluations? What metric(s) would be used?

Dick, if government were more open with its processes and thinking, would staying in front of the audiences still be necessary? Would it be harder, or easier? I’m not familiar with the challenges of our public relations folks.

Kathryn, your comment is a strong reminder of the importance of openness in government, thank you!

Dannielle, your’ve given great suggestions. I wonder how many executives see tweeting with the public as part of their job description…that’s probably a BIG change of mindset for many.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks so much for your insightful comments, Carol, which are very much appreciated. A few thoughts:

  • “…why openness is so frightening for some“? Answer: entrenched bureaucracy, resistance to change, fear of criticism/negativity through citizen engagement and open dialogue.
  • Excellent point: “…most of those difficult experiences likely happened because we didn’t communicate openly.”
  • …controlling information is a control issue.” You are correct. Moreover, this is extremely unfortunate, especially in today’s Information Age with the proliferation and evolution of digital/mobile technology. American citizens should have open access to all non-sensitive and classified gov information. If anything, citizens should exert more “control” over gov, not the other way around.

  • I don’t know what the most effective tools are for changing the culture or mindset around sharing more with our customers/public — including open communications in performance evaluations?” Answer: Leadership must flow from the very top-down. Agency heads need to be outspoken and unequivocal to change gov’s entrenched bureaucratic and antiquated culture regarding transparency and open gov. If the agency head makes it a priority, senior execs should follow; if not, make it a criteria in performance evaluations and consideration of bonuses/awards.

  • What metrics would be used?” Another excellent question. I think metrics should be determined based upon a uniform gov-wide standards set by OPM and/or OMB.
  • THANKS AGAIN CAROL for helping to facilitate this important discussion.