Communication in public administration

Developing Communication Skills for Public Administration

Understanding the perspectives of others – and the best ways to respectfully communicate with people to learn those views – is essential for anyone working in any capacity of public service. Consider a few examples:

An aide working in the office of a modern-day city planner must have a grasp on the various demographic groups living in the city’s neighborhoods to speculate on what their reactions might be to a proposed municipal project in close proximity to their homes. Similarly, if not fully aware of the differing political priorities and conflicts among city mayors and councilors, county sheriffs, state representatives and other government operatives, a state governor’s chief of staff will not be very effective in his or her job.

One could list similar hypothetical situations for hours. The common thread here is that all administrative and policy-related roles in the public service sector, from government departments to nonprofit organizations, are contingent on possessing excellent communication skills. This does not necessarily pertain to public speaking abilities; although some positions in this field involve public or media relations, many will revolve entirely around private meetings. In this context, listening, understanding, and (arguably most of all) empathizing are just as essential as clear spoken and written communication.

Those who are seriously considering a public service career working for a charity or in a government role can give their qualifications a considerable boost by enrolling in the Master of Public Administration program at Rutgers University – Newark. As noted above, communication skills are a fundamental necessity of this field. When making the decision to embark on this educational path, examining in detail the ways in which communication is, to a great extent, the engine of public administration, will be highly beneficial.

Communication aids transparency

It naturally follows that because public administration involves promoting the greater good of a given population, be it that of a whole city or perhaps the demographic group served by a charitable nonprofit, the general public must know the most urgent civic issues they face. When these are major problems, such as a deficit in the public school system’s budget or a widespread health issue, they need – and want – to understand what public servants, whose salaries they fund as taxpayers, are doing about such problematic occurrences.

When immediate dangers to people’s safety arise, such as an impending natural disaster, a full-blown contagion or credible evidence of a terrorist threat, the ability of public administrators to widely and efficiently disseminate information through all essential channels will be put to even greater tests.

In a study published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, author M. Dale Beckman wrote, “If adequate communication about proposed plans does not occur, this exchange [of opinions and ideas] cannot take place. Perhaps policymakers too readily assume that communication with other significant persons is occurring.”

This involves not only knowing what to tell the general population but also what to conceal, if doing so is necessary for law enforcement and other emergency services personnel to get their jobs done. In this context, the metaphor of a tightrope walk doesn’t do justice to the delicacy necessary for the appropriate handling of this matter. Instances in which the flow of information must be restricted or at least partially circumvented can, if uncovered by the news media at a later date and misunderstood by the public, devastate the political capital of government executives and their administrations as well as entire public departments.

The coursework and curriculum of MPA degree programs will address all facets of the role communication plays in the transparency of public servants, including matters in which maintaining discretion is paramount.

Dealing with the media

The issue of media relations is, on its face, another aspect of maintaining transparency to the public, but one involving much more nuance. As the past few decades have demonstrated, media coverage can, almost entirely on its own at times, make or break a politician or any other public official.

Therefore, there’s often a tentatively upheld symbiosis between government departments and print, TV and online news organizations, whom public administrators rely upon to help spread publicly beneficial information, according to The Nest. Neither group fully trusts the other, but their mutual need is inviolable in any democratic republic. The only instances where this isn’t the case are autocracies that crush the free press and instances of collusive corruption to create favorable coverage.

MPA students must learn how the media can be used advantageously without infringing on its First Amendment rights to do their jobs effectively. As a study by Brooke Fisher Liu, J. Suzanne Horsley and Kaifeng Yang for the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory found, governments that interact positively and productively with journalists and allocate appropriate resources toward media relations are more likely to receive positive coverage.

Cooperation through communication

In the introduction to their textbook “The Craft of Public Administration,” now considered a landmark text of numerous MPA and Master of Public Policy degree programs, authors George Berkeley and John Rouse came to a clear and defining realization of what public administration really represents:

“Public administration constitutes the ‘chemistry’ of the United States,” Berkeley and Rouse wrote. “The two key principles that have come to embody the American ideal, equality and efficiency, are likewise the crucial determinants of how well the public or government sector functions in the United States. Democratic capitalism does not flourish if public infrastructures, such as schools, highways, institutions of public safety, and similar taxpayer-funded government operations are devalued and rendered ineffective.”

Simply put, the importance of ensuring that public administrative and service processes run smoothly and are not impeded cannot ever be understated or taken for granted. This makes internal communication just as vital as public outreach: Intra-agency dealings, the ability to find compromises that bridge impasses between different interest groups, speaking out for one’s ideas when put in a brainstorming session with a dozen other aides and midlevel government officials, maintaining courteous relationships and many other similar situations are all integral to optimal internal communication between public administrators.

According to a 2015 article in the Issues in Social Science journal of the nonprofit Macrothink Institute, written communication skills are of particular importance when aiming to foster and maintain an atmosphere of positive, productive interaction in a government department or nonprofit organization.

Meetings of public servants must be documented to the most precise detail – the phrase “minutes” is never more appropriately used to describe meeting records than when it pertains to the discussions of political committees. Official memorandums, like meeting minutes, will eventually become a part of the public record, as is true of all letters, emails and social media posts issued from a public office. Thus, words must be precisely applied and never wasted.

This applies just as much to internal notes and emails between public servants. Because you and your fellow workers are serving something far greater than personal gain or the revenue of a company, you’ll need to write, speak and act with the appropriate courtesy and gravity. The skills learned in MPA core courses will help you achieve this goal.

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The online Master of Public Administration from Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) gives students a broad understanding of the field and its relevant issues. Students become competent at defining public problems, analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, developing and communicating creative solutions, and implementing ethical and practical courses of action.


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