Reason No. 1 for “bite-sized” government: Play nice with the media.

Why get along with the media? You’ll fare better on the front page. I’m a former government news reporter and can tell you firsthand that secrecy—sometimes in the form of complicated terminology— leads to unfavorable stories, even if political decisions are well founded and necessary.

I sat through countless city and county meetings. For the most part I cured boredom by scribbling cartoon faces of politicos on my oversize yellow notepad. I’d attend the work sessions and write a short piece for the next day’s paper, letting the public know what was on the table should anyone want to partake. For the most part, stories were typical government mumbo-jumbo … who wanted to build in residential zoning, what streets were set for paving, etc.

One day, the county tried to pull one over. At the end of a long work session, commissioners mumbled something—dare I say whispered—about that “licensing thing we’re going to vote on tomorrow.” That was it … no real discussion or explanation.

So of course I looked it up.

The county was about to hike liquor license fees by 200 percent—a whopping $3,000 increase for some small business owners. And the county was doing it overnight, with some licensing fees coming due within months.

So guess what went on the front page, above the fold? And you can imagine how frustrated the political body was when mom-and-pop business owners filled the chamber and pleaded.

Now as it turned out, the county seriously needed to update liquor license fees. They were some 40 years behind the curve. But the initial lack of transparency resulted in mistrust. If the county was more forthcoming with information—where my idea of bite-sized government comes into play—I would have conveyed it differently to the public.

How could this have been “bite-sized”? If county commissioners clearly depicted how much they were behind in fees and how much they would gain to fund specific public services—and where that money would go—the reasoning for increased fees would warrant attention. Public servants tend to shy away from the media to protect interests, but this “hush-hush” behavior increases distrust.

Commissioners ended up tabling the issue due to vocal opposition and eventually agreed to increase fees gradually.

I’m now a public policy and administration Ph.D. student at Mississippi State University and am focusing my research on communication between bureaucracy and the public. I’m giving 10 reasons for bite-sized government each Thursday now through Oct. 7. My theory furthers government transparency at the state and local level. I’m looking for feedback from government practitioners as to what you think about this idea. Would you like to improve relations with the media in effort to reach citizens? Check out my website I’d really like to hear from you!

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Looking forward to your 10 reasons, Kenna!

Love the phrase “bite-sized government,” too…sounds like you’re advocating for a similar idea I’ve been thinking about/trying to promote: micro-local. Open government will engage the most people if we think at those decisions that have immediate impact on citizen’s lives – like changes to the liquor license fee.

Strong work – awaiting your next post!

Kenna Walsh

Thanks for the feedback! Justin, I will definitely look into that. That’s exactly what I’m examining. My final goal is to teach at the graduate level, incorporating communication into the public policy and administration curriculum. If we teach future practitioners how to communicate effectively with the public, transparency will naturally come about.
Thanks Andrew and Adriel! Let’s stay in touch.

Ed Cunningham

Great advice, Kenna. My biggest task is to sell this idea internally. I keep explaining that the more time senior level administrators put into communicating with reporters, the fewer mistakes they’ll see in print. The “mumbo jumbo” clarifies nothing, and the inherent distrust of reporters complicates the problem. Definitely will be interested in seeing what your research reveals.