Counter-Spin for Open Government

'What lies behind the blog phenomena? It is people just talking to people. And for many, that has become a more real level of communication than what they get from the mainstream media or from their government and social leaders.'

by / February 14, 2005
Blake Harris
To provide different points of view on news and trends, Government Technology will occasionally carry editorials by writers and government leaders. Blake Harris has covered the state and local government scene for more than a decade for Visions, GT and Public CIO.

It occurred to me recently that government must almost reinvent the subject of public relations if it is to actually involve and serve citizens broadly in this age of electronic information.

With the free flow of information offered by blogs and the web, the habits, traditions and principles of old school PR -- what the general public increasingly has come to regard as "spin" --largely fails government in the long run today. Modern attempts to influence and control public opinion by controlling information too rigidly only seems to create greater misunderstanding, more mistrust, and a growing gulf between citizens and their government. The proof of that is easily found in general public mistrust for government and corporate leaders -- the very people who most utilize public relations professionals to help fashion and deliver their messages.

Democracy only thrives with open, transparent government. Usually this is concept is framed in terms of access to information. But in an age of information overload, simple access isn't enough. Increasingly, for open government to work, there needs to be effective communication of vital information so citizens can actually appreciate and understand not only the challenges government faces, but also the choices being made to meet those challenges. And this would seem to suggest that a new style of spin-free public sector public relations is desperately needed to provide a real communications bridge between government and citizens.

In other words, open government does not just imply that information is available some place where a researcher with enough savvy and diligence can dig it up. Information actually has to be pushed out through the information noise to connect. And this information has to be what citizens need to know -- the good and the bad, the successes and failures, and the realistic options for the future.

So the job of public sector public relations is not to provide spin, which the public increasingly sees through anyway, but rather to find ways to communicate a broad spectrum of information to citizens so they actually get it. And that is far more challenging than simply spinning messages in an attempt to make a client look good.

In talking last year to Rolf Jensen, former director of The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies and author of The Dream Society, this was one thing he mentioned that really didn't end up in the interview we ran. He suggested that governments had to start communicating honestly and openly to reach citizens -- talking as one human being to another. Otherwise people increasingly would just turn off. That idea has considerable merit.

What lies behind the blog phenomena? It is people just talking to people. And for many, that has become a more real level of communication than what they get from the mainstream media or from their government and social leaders.

And in the spirit of talking person to person, let me explain what led me to these conclusions...

I've been writing about government and information technology for well over a decade now. Yet one thing still manages to surprise me on occasion. I know it, yet tend to forget it and then rediscover it all over again.

This is that government is filled with people who sincerely want to do a good job serving citizens by making things better. Moreover, government also has a lot of very smart people doing their darnedest to set correct priorities, to find solutions

to very real problems and to do a lot with a little.

So why is this often still surprising to me? Well, over the years, my writing has covered a wide spectrum. In fact, this is one thing I like about my job. I always have to dig into situations and technological solutions where I really don't have much familiarity to start out. Often, when I start into a story in a sphere that is new to me, I really have little more information or knowledge about it that the well-informed citizen does.

As a result, my preconceived notions often aren't much different than those of general citizens. And invariably in pursuing these stories, after simply conducting a few interviews, I am usually surprised by how wrong my preconceived notions were.

In other words, in researching articles in one new sphere or another, I am in effect moving from uninformed (and somewhat mistrusting) member of the general public to one who actually has some understand of situations and the actions governments are taking to address them. And as a result, my respect for folks in government soars because I begin to appreciate the hard decisions and challenges they face. Moreover, I cease to see the sector simply as a kind of bureaucratic, faceless, unfeeling institution.

It is a sad fact today that most people never appreciate what their governments -- state, local or federal -- are trying to do for them. And for democracy to flourish securely, I think such appreciation is important.

There is a limit, however, to how many people government folks can talk to directly. So this is why public relations is so important -- a new style of public relations without the spin and half-truths.

Somehow the gulf between citizens and government needs to be bridged much more effectively than it has been in the past few decades. And that objective, I think, must be pursued with some vigor if support and trust for government is not going to deteriorate further.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor