Humorist James H. Boren once wrote: “Bureaucrats are the only people in the world who can say absolutely nothing and mean it.”
Bureaucrats, more kindly known as public administrators, implement policy and manage programs at all levels of government. They work in nonprofit service organizations administering programs that depend on public funding. Boren’s quip reflects general consensus that public administrators need to develop better communication skills. While many factors contribute to effective communication, the ability to write, and to write well, is a critical communication skill for public administrators. Here’s why:
1. Audience and Tone. Good writers know their audience and tailor their writing to the reader. For public administrators, striking the right tone means deciding how best to convey ideas and information to diverse constituencies, co-workers and policymakers.
2. Public Disclosure and Accountability.Memos, letters, reports and other documents written by public sector employees are almost always subject to public disclosure under freedom of information laws.Public administrators need to remember that what they write may be front page news and that they are accountable for the content of their writings.
3. Professionalism. Good writing is like dressing appropriately for a business meeting.It shows a seriousness of purpose that reinforces the importance of the information being conveyed. Professional quality writing inspires public confidence in the writer, the message and the organization.
4. Clarity. Good writing requires clear thinking, a firm grasp of the language and command of the subject matter. Public administrators are regularly called upon to explain complex public policy. Unclear or confusing writing fails to communicate important information and loses the reader’s attention.
5. Credibility and Trust. Public administrators are entrusted with the responsibility for providing reliable information to those they serve. Poor grammar, spelling and word choice distract readers from the message and make them question the accuracy of the information in the document.
Good writing is not intuitive. Even very good writers know that it takes time and practice to develop writing skills. For some, honing their skills is about finding a mentor to read and review their work. For others, taking a basic writing course is the place to start. Graduate programs in public administration, such as the one offered at Post University, increasingly offer courses specifically designed to improve students’ writing.
Successful public administrators never underestimate the significance of written communication skills. They demonstrate competency and inspire trust by mastering the ability to communicate clearly and effectively through their writing. Most importantly, they know that whether writing to a constituent, co-worker or policymaker, good writing is essential to providing good public service. For public administrators, that is the best reason of all.
Cynthia Anger is the Academic Program Manager for Post University’s Master of Public Administration program. A practicing attorney, she holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration and is a certified zoning enforcement official. Anger serves as a Superior Court Magistrate for the State of Connecticut and as an Arbitrator for the Financial Industry National Regulatory Authority. She has over 20 years’ experience as a full-time municipal attorney and has appeared before the Connecticut Supreme and Appellate Courts on numerous occasions.