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Communicating for the Public Good: Government agencies engaging teams to improve service

Last week I had the opportunity to present at ALI’s Strategic Internal Communications in Government Conference, alongside of a great group of professionals who have dedicated their careers to serving city, state and federal-level government agencies and organizations across the country. We spent two days learning about our shared experiences and exchanging ideas and insights for leading effective communications and engagement in the public sector.

Employee engagement in government is more important than ever as government and other public sector organizations are facing tremendous challenges, including political pressures, public scrutiny, reputation issues and a lack of resources and staffing that can be detrimental to providing adequate, let alone innovative services. Luckily, leaders in these organizations are realizing that engagement is no longer a “nice to have” or something that only Corporate America should concern itself with. That’s because research shows that engagement is not just about improving sales or profitability, it also leads to greater productivity, better customer service, and fewer safety incidents and quality defects, as well as many other metrics that are essential for delivering critical services to the public.

Communicators play a large role in fostering this engagement, by developing strategies and programs that inform, motivate and align employees around a common mission, and telling stories that contribute to a positive culture. Here are my takeaways from the discussions, which ring true whether you’re in government or any industry.

Shift from internal communications to intentional communications - Petula Burks, Washington State Dept. of Health.

Each day we’re bombarded with messages across numerous channels - newsletters, intranets, social media, digital screens, staff meetings, among others. Make sure these messages are thoughtful and intentional, otherwise your employees will be receiving second and third hand information and trying to connect it to their work. With intentional communication, messages are shared continuously, consistently, and are connected to the bigger organization strategy. Intentional communications should begin the moment an employee walks in the door and sustained throughout their career with you.

Be realistic about your challenges - Aaron Lavallee US Dept. of Agriculture

Too often, strategic programs and new initiatives are created and vetted at top levels within an organization, then disseminated organization-wide for everyone to act. When this happens, we’re neglecting to understand the perspective of those on the ground who are actually doing the work. For government agencies, this could mean the people providing the services, teaching our students, driving our buses or repairing our roadways. Put yourself in their shoes and understand the environment they work in and what they contend with every day. Then develop strategies and programs that are relevant, accessible and allow everyone to participate.

Talk with people, not to them - Marisa Ellison, MO Dept. of Transportation

Effective communications is about effective listening. As communicators, we’re always crafting the message and trying to get ahead of the news, or in some cases make the news. As we’re responding to crisis, we’re already coming up with the next response. Instead of being quick to respond, try to be more attentive to what others are saying. It will help you develop a better understanding of different perspectives, craft more thoughtful communications, and build your own credibility.

Engagement is not just for employees - Rebecca Rose, Young Government Leaders

Senior leadership, within any organization, plays a very important role in fostering employee engagement. If senior leaders are not bought into engagement efforts, employees will never feel empowered or motivated to do their best work. Leadership needs to be the biggest champion of an organization’s vision and mission and set the tone for how the organization will operate, from hiring practices to policies to communications.

Don’t forget the snacks - Neil Bonner, Transportation Security Administration

Your employees are hungry for information. But with tens of thousands of employees based in different field locations or with limited to no access to a computer on a daily basis, your information needs to be short, sweet and to the point. Mobile apps can be an effective way to reach remote employees, but if you’re using them make sure to offer small, digestible information “snacks,” like short videos, infographics and headlines to keep teams in the know and engaged.

Focus on what you can control - yours truly

You have a lot of great ideas that you want to implement, but you can’t go it alone. Often, government agencies, or any large organization for that matter, can be very bureaucratic and siloed. Processes and information don’t always translate from one department to another. Due to competing priorities, resources, security, policies, and of course politics (big P and little p), as well as numerous other reasons, you’re not always going to receive instant buy-in. You may even need to go through several layers of approval to get something done. There will always be things beyond your control, so have patience and spend your time and energy tackling the areas that you can influence.

These are just a few of the insights that were shared. I look forward to staying in touch with these communication pros and hearing about how they’re continuing to engage teams across their agencies.

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