Smart Communications for Program Implementation and Mission Success – PA TIMES Online

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

Authors: Aroon P. Manoharan and Mordecai Lee
May 10, 2024

In essence, public administration is concerned with implementing government policies and programs. This is a key stage in the public policy-making process and entails many decisions and management actions at all levels of the organization. Formal and informal actors are involved in implementation, so it is important to communicate consistently and regularly to ensure that implementation activities are aligned with the program objectives. Communication is also important for citizens and stakeholders to ensure access to and use of public programs. In many cases, the public is not aware of the programs that are important to them. This is the equivalent of a joke in public administration: “if a tree fell in the forest and no one was there to hear it, did it make a sound?” Too often in public administration, communication is a secondary issue rather than a key step in the implementation process.

It is important to untangle the many motivations embedded in government communications. Given that we operate in the civic sphere, we have certain communication responsibilities that are inherent to government in a democracy. We must be transparent, accountable to the public (as well as legislative oversight), and routinely inform the public about what we do. However, these motivations are clearly separated from the implementation of the program. The same goes for a clever form of communication that will help boost an agency’s ratings (in hopes of gaining some influence on legislative decisions). These are all forms of communication, but none of them involve politics implementation.

Public communications must be strategic, concise and intelligent to ensure mission success. At best, they can be catchy and attractive to attract the immediate attention of citizens, especially in emergency and life-threatening situations. However, American culture can also be a little too action-oriented. We have action heroes, action movies, action games. Intelligent communication requires a degree of planning and thought before action. Reduced to the most concise encapsulation: What information you want to convey i Who do you want to pass it on?

With the increasing use of social media and digital technology, public administrators can be more innovative in communication for effective implementation (Manoharan and Rangarajan, 2023). We are practically in a situation of ubiquitous and near saturation of the media environment. There are many (and constantly changing) communication channels and platforms. When government communications are directed at a specific target audience, they must occur on the platforms and media most appropriate to that audience.

We suggest that there are several distinct goals that may constitute the primary drivers for implementing a program through intelligent communication. These include responsiveness to customers (“you can reschedule your appointment online”); seeking to increase the use of agency programs and services (“Take Back Day”), public service campaigns designed to influence behavior (“Click or Ticket”), enlisting the cooperation of citizens as the eyes and ears of the agency (“See something, say something” ) and seeking voluntary cooperation with laws and regulations (“If you speed, we will see you before you see us”) (Lee, 2022).

Over the last few years, we have seen several innovative examples of intelligent communication in program delivery. Park rangers at the Grand Canyon have noticed that too many tourists struggle with heat exhaustion each summer. The “drink, drink, drink” mantra didn’t seem to be fully effective. And that’s how it started preventive search and rescue, including offering salty snacks and water at key locations on difficult paths. Avoiding the problem was much better (and cheaper) than search and rescue. When the 10-digit National Suicide and Crisis Hotline was replaced with the 3-digit number “988”, there was a surge in calls and messages. This seemingly small change in access method has yielded a huge return in terms of ease of use. The State Patrol provided information and stickers to truck drivers to warn them about human trafficking and advise them how to behave. Medicare has added a “Fraud Alert” notice to the back of every envelope it sends: “Hang Up! Don’t give them money or personal information!” The city authorities placed vending machines with free drugs in public places. For each local project, EPA placed a paid advertisement for a “Community Engagement Coordinator” that included the person’s name, telephone number, and email address.

Smart cities, smart governance and smart policies are admirable buzzwords being used to address today’s governance issues. It’s also time to add one more thing, intelligent communication as a premise for public administrators focusing on using communications to achieve program goals and mission success.

For example: What works? And what does not? How do you know? Have you tested this? Have affected stakeholders been consulted? Are you using the platform and medium most appropriate for your particular audience? Is your message concise? Does it convey the most important information at a glance? Is it placed as close to the behavior or action as possible? Is it memorable?

These are the questions management must consider before issuing a press release, posting on X, or posting a video on YouTube. An intelligent communication strategy can often mean the difference between the success or failure of a policy implementation.

Author: Dr. Aroon P. Manoharan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Service and Health Care Administration at the Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University in Boston. He is also the Director of the National Center for Public Performance at the University of Suffolk. His research interests include digital government, performance measurement, strategic planning, public communication, administrative capacity and comparative public administration. His books include e-Government and Information Technology Management: Concepts and Best Practices; and E-government and websites: a handbook of public solutions. He is the recipient of the Jeanne Marie Col Leadership Award, the Paul Volcker Junior Scholar Award and the John Carlin Public Administration Scholarship. He obtained a Ph.D. from the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) at Rutgers University in Newark and chairs the ASPA Section on International and Comparative Administration (SICA).

Author: Dr. Mordecai Lee is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he taught for 22 years. He is the author of 11 books published in university presses, 70 articles in journals and several chapters in edited books, and has also edited three books that are collections of his writings. He is interested in PR in public administration, history of government and management of non-profit organizations. He earned a doctorate in public administration from Syracuse University. Prior to his academic career, he was a legislative assistant to a member of Congress, elected to the Wisconsin Legislature for three terms and the Senate for two terms, and led a nonprofit faith-based agency.

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