The earliest scholars of public administration often struggled with the exact definition of bureaucracy. Is it the invisible fourth branch of government? Do bureaucrats derive their power politically or managerially?
I believe bureaucracy is best defined when we reach to the constitutional undertones and examine government “by the people, for the people.” How do practitioners involve the public in daily decisions (and do they want to)? Here’s where my idea of bite-sized government comes into play.
You may think involving the public in the process will be more of a pain than worth your while (think of those long-winded citizen comment sessions and that older couple who just can’t understand why their county residence is being transferred to the city). Believe me, I know. I’m a former government news reporter and tolerated many a frustrated lament. My favorite was an 8-year-old girl who complained about how her cat’s asthma was affected by a county burn ordinance.
As journalists, we’re taught to write to an 8th grade reading level. That’s the average skill for Americans. As government practitioners, you may find yourself tangled in the complexities of “government speak.” This involves sentence structures and language that don’t simplistically spell out what’s going on.
Pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal or switch on NPR. You’ll see—and hear—complex government issues whittled down. Public relations personnel are equipped to handle such tasks, but often smaller municipalities don’t have the funding to employ PR reps. Instead, communication falls upon the shoulders of many employees.
My doctoral research focuses on how public administrators can improve communication with citizenry. I’m conducting research into this area because I want to teach students in the master’s of public policy and administration program how to communicate much like journalists. I currently teach journalism to undergraduates.
Here’s a tip: Do you use simple sentence structures? Journalism students learn to keep their sentences to 25 words or less. Do you avoid complicated words? My students learn to use simplistic language that an average 8th grader could understand.
Sec. 2 of the Repaving Referendum includes an allotment of 5 percent of the Engineering Fund for impervious asphalt surface paving for dirt roads in the southwestern portion of the county.
Whoa! That’s cumbersome and 31 words. This is exactly the type of information I sifted through as a news reporter. How could you make this bite-sized?
Dirt roads in the county’s southwestern portion are set for paving, with 5 percent of the engineering fund going toward the project.
This is 22 words and easy to follow. How could the sentence be even better? Say what 5 percent means—in dollars—and put it in perspective to the dollar amount for the overall fund.
What do you think about this notion? Do you think department managers and government employees should train in communication? Who in your city or county is responsible for talking with residents?
I’m a Ph.D. student at Mississippi State University and looking for feedback from practitioners as to my ideas. I’m giving a glimpse into my research with the top ten reasons for bite-sized government each Thursday through Oct. 7. Please visit my website. I’d really like to hear from you!