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Overcoming the Barriers to Government Transparency

There are at least five types of information that federal employees, not just communicators, generally want to share with the public:

  • Mission: They’d like the public to be aware of what the agency does and why it’s important. They want the public to know about the significance of the broader issue as well, such as clean water, STEM education, maternal health, and so on.
  • Resources: They want people to know what the agency offers to the public in terms of goods and services, such as how to apply for federal student aid or how to navigate the immigration process.
  • Dedication: They want to share personal stories about how individuals at the agency are doing their best to help the public. An example might be a U.S. Postal Service employee who went through three sacks of mail to find one lost Social security check.
  • Responsiveness: They want the agency to answer stakeholder questions forthrightly. Typically this comes up when the agency is the subject of a derogatory news headline, a negative report, Congressional scrutiny, etc. and there is little or no information available beyond the negative coverage.
  • Accountability: They want the agency to admit its misdeeds or mistakes and make them right. This differs from responsiveness in that the desire is for proactive transparency about matters which are either nonpublic (they can be handled internally) or not-yet-public (they haven’t become a crisis yet).

If only we could do all of the above on a regular basis, the federal government would have an amazing relationship with the public. Trust would be high, dialogue would be robust, and legal compliance would be far easier to facilitate.
Unfortunately however the natural desire to be honest and transparent runs into a series of obstacles when intention bumps up against the real world. Here are the typical objections and some recommendations for handling them:

  • Financial: Agencies typically don’t rush to take action that will negatively impact their appropriations. And of course, transparency is an action that involves telling the good stuff along with the bad. So the communicator typically encounters a variation of the following: “Why would we voluntarily make ourselves look bad?” The way to handle this issue, in my experience, is to bring in external communication consultants to do educational sessions for senior executives well before an issue comes up. When all understand that transparency is ultimately a long-term investment in credibility, they are more likely to accept short-term sacrifices when it comes to risking the admission of a mistake or a program that is not functioning optimally.
  • Legal: The role of agency counsel in determining the content of communications is significant. This is for obvious reasons; the words federal agencies utter matter very much, and the wrong words create a risk of litigation. The problem however is that good communication typically involves simplifying the message (which lawyers may say renders it technically inaccurate) as well as empathizing with the angry stakeholder (which lawyers may say constitutes an admission of fault). It is important that federal communicators and agency counsel have a close working relationship so as to find a sensible approach that doesn’t involve inordinate delays and debates over every issue that comes up.
  • Political: Agencies operate through a mixture of political appointees, and civil servants. Obviously this is going to create conflict as the appointee is there to make changes at the behest of the President and to communicate in such a way that the President’s policies look good. The civil servant on the other hand is focused primarily on performing their duties in a traditional manner, meaning that they focus on avoiding risk, ensuring accountability and the maintenance of political neutrality. When it comes to sharing information with the public, you can’t be a cheerleader and a nonpartisan information broker at the same time. The way to handle this is for the civil servants to educate political appointees about the operational environment and its requirements so that all understand the rules of the road. Conversely, civil servants need to accept the authority of political appointees and partner with them to make desired changes, as opposed to “waiting it out” till that particular Administration’s time is over.
  • Psychological: These are the beliefs, feelings, or impressions of fact held in the minds of decision makers. Frequently, for example, decision makers have fixed ideas about which information is important to share, the writing style in which it should be delivered, the media that are appropriate, and even the type and level of approval needed to do so. They may also bring past experience to bear on the current situation and assess that a communication priority is more (or less) pressing than it seems. They may also assess that “over-communicating” can only put them or their programs at risk professionally. Typically psychological issues are best handled by pairing an executive with a communicator who is highly skilled, confident, who does not threaten the leader, and who can gently provide guidance without seeming to undermine.
  • Cultural: As a massive bureaucracy charged with providing for the public welfare, the federal government is inherently a risk-averse, rules-driven, technically-oriented, mechanistic organism. “Stirring the pot” by intentionally sharing bad news is perceived as destructive to the foundations upon which the trust and credibility of government are based. The way to handle this issue is for communicators to develop time-tested, metrics-based standards for messaging. When you can demonstrate that greater transparency is linked with greater stability and trust over time, individual instances of information-sharing cease to be an issue.

In addition to working within the system, members of the public — both individually and as part of formal organizations — can do much to elicit transparency from the government. I have found that the government is very interested in what the public has to say, and they particularly want to hear from educated stakeholders — those who stay informed and engaged on key issues.
In the end, government is a partnership, not a one-way street. If you want more information, it’s important to continually ask for it.
All opinions my own. Photo credit: U.S. Army via Flickr (Creative Commons)


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