Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Politics, Political Savvy, Government Communicators and Transition Time

By NAGC  President-elect Chris O'Neil

Then ...



And now.
It’s that time again – transition time.  The elections are over and for many offices that means change – from one administration to the next, from one appointee to the next.

Transition happens at all levels of government – local, state and federal – and the process affects all government communicators in some fashion.  

The focus of this post is not how to prepare for the onslaught of work associated with preparing for transition, or, how to prep for an assignment to the “transition team.”  No, the point I want to share with you today is the opportunity presented to you, the career government communicator, by transition time.

Transition is the time to establish your role as the trusted advisor, to lay a foundation that supports your role as the counselor for all things relating to government communications.  Transition is the time where you advocate for transparency in government through disciplined, ethical and effective communication.


Transition is the time to inculcate incoming personnel on your agency’s communication doctrine, policy and tactics.  It is the time to demonstrate how good government needs good communication.  

Communicators fresh off the campaign trail need help transitioning their mindset, their focus, and their practices from those used to win the campaign, to those that communicate about the activities of government.  Career government communicators have the experience, training and skills to help incoming personnel understand that information is not released to achieve political objectives, it is released because the public has a right to know how its government is working – including those times (and perhaps most importantly) when their government isn’t performing well.  

Career communicators are, at work, politically agnostic, meaning we are dedicated to fulfilling the free exchange of ideas that is the basis of our democracy, rather than fulfilling the political objectives of the recently elected or appointed.

Being politically agnostic does not mean communicators are not politically savvy – quite contrary. Good communicators know the full condition of the information environment, including the political landscape.  This situational awareness allows them to provide the best possible advice to their principals on how to communicate about their agency’s activities.  Ensuring your counsel reflects political reality doesn’t make you political, it makes you politically savvy.  

Conversely, black balling reporters whom your principals deem “uncooperative” or “who don’t cover us favorably” is being political, not politically savvy.  Withholding otherwise publicly releasable information, because the information is deemed “politically charged” or “politically risky”, or failing to advocate for the course of action that promotes transparency and accountability in government, is at best unethical and contrary to effective communication and effective governance.  As government communicators we have to lead the effort to persuade and educate incoming leadership about our solid communication practices and their foundation on the art and science of government communication.

Transition time is a time of opportunity.  It is a time to either reset doctrine, policy and procedures that may have strayed from the purposes of promoting transparency and accountability, or, it is a time to reinforce those good practices and to continue to practice good communication in support of good government.  It’s our responsibility, as the career government communicators, to ensure we get the incoming team moving down the correct path.  

Remember, just like, "If you didn’t vote, you don’t get to complain," if you don’t take the time to advocate for transparency, for ethics based communication about your agency, then you don’t get to complain if the new team doesn’t get it.  It isn’t always easy, it isn’t always fun, but it’s our job to ensure the best practices of good government communication are instilled with incoming personnel during transition time.

Transition is the time where your role as an advisor is key to the future success of your communication efforts – use the time wisely.

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