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Roles and Communication Practices

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Communicating in the Policy Process:

Key Concepts

  • communicating in the cultural context of public policy making
  • managing communication

Writing and speaking are not sufficient to make public policy, but they are necessary.
Communication functions in two fundamental ways.

Communication produces useful information.

Useful information in a public policy process has four major characteristics: it helps to solve problems, it is action-oriented, it has consequences, and it is publicly accessible.

Helps to solve problems. Information is needed at every stage of a policy process—to frame a problem, to analyze issues, to argue approaches, to decide on solutions. Only relevant information is useful, however. In deciding whether to provide information, always ask and answer these questions: To whom is this relevant? How will it help to solve the problem?

Is action-oriented. In policy work, information makes things happen. In deciding whether and how to inform in a policy process, always ask and answer this question: What do I want this information to do?

Has consequences. A problem and its solution affect other problems and solutions in many contexts. Consequently, information’s effects can be wide-ranging. In deciding whether and how to inform in a policy process, always ask and answer these questions: What is likely to happen as a result of this information? What impacts might this information have?

Is publicly accessible. Policy makers are answerable to the people who give them authority. Therefore, information used in public processes must be publicly available. Officially, it is recorded and preserved by government as an authoritative public record. Unofficially, news media of all kinds and people in everyday social interactions distribute information as well. In deciding whether and how to inform a policy process, always ask and answer this question: How will this information be made public?

Communication makes information intelligible in context.

Context here means, narrowly, action in a particular policy cycle, or, broadly, a governmental framework and its political environment. Intelligibility means understanding achieved through a two-way transaction. Intelligibility happens when writer and reader, or speaker and listener, use shared expectations to create and interpret information.

Intelligibility begins with genre knowledge, or the ability to recognize what type of communication is called for or is underway. In policy work, genre knowledge comes with understanding the policy cycle, the typical purposes associated with a phase of the cycle, and the range of document or speech types conventionally used to create information for a chosen purpose. This guide helps you to develop your genre knowledge.


Presenters and recipients of information must share knowledge of expectations if a document (or talk) is to accomplish its objective.

In public policy communication, information is expected to be useful. What matters most is not how much you know but rather how much your readers or listeners know after they have read your document or heard your talk.

Presentation is expected to be clear, concise, correct, and credible. Public policy work is information-overloaded. Especially in government settings, time is scarce, schedules are nearly impossible, and attention is always divided. Rarely does anybody have patience for disorganized, wordy documents that do not have an obvious purpose. Information functions best when it can be comprehended quickly, trusted as accurate, traced to authoritative sources, and used with confidence.

Cultural Context: Actors, Roles, and Communication Practices

Who generates public policy information? Actors in the policy making process do. Actors are participants. Actors create and use information in accord with their role in the process. As the term is used here, a role is a function or job with specific responsibility and purpose in the process. 

Interests might motivate actors and influence their role performance. Interests are stakes or concerns, which might be organized (collectively held, ready for action) or unorganized (individually held, latent). For example, a trade association or an advocacy group has organized interest while a dispersed affected population has unorganized interest. Typically, organized interests acting as groups are most influential. However, individuals acting alone can be influential, too.

For all actors, roles and interests might relate in complex ways, and lines between them can be unclear. Some ambiguity is normal, as when an elected officeholder represents constituency interests in seeking a particular committee assignment or in proposing legislation. But other ambiguity might be unethical, as when an officeholder communicates false information. Ethics procedures internal and external to government serve to protect the policy making process. Even better protection comes from ethical actors who aim to do no harm.

Typical actors in public policy processes include:

  • Providers of goods, services, or activities related to the problem
  • Consumers of goods or services in the problem area (if organized)
  • Experts with specialized knowledge of the problem
  • Advocates and lobbyists representing particular interests in the problem
  • Officials with authority to solve the problem

For example, in making policy for highway safety, the following actors would be involved:

  • Automotive and insurance industries as providers of goods, services, or activities
  • Organizations of automobile drivers as consumers
  • Specialists in automobile design or analysts of the economics of transportation as experts
  • Advocates for accident victims and lobbyists for law enforcement associations as representatives of particular interests
  • Members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, or state governors as official authorities

Whether they write or speak themselves or they authorize others to do it for them, policy actors generate information in relation to their role. Credibility, or the perceived reliability of information, is judged partly on the information source’s role in the process. In the auto safety example, automotive industries credibly generate technical information on safety features of vehicles. Similarly, insurance industries credibly generate information on the economic consequences of accidents. Consumer groups credibly provide accounts of experience in using automotive products and credibly identify problematic conditions. Expert specialists in automobile design or materials credibly report results of re­search on ways to make cars safer. Expert policy analysts might credibly offer advice on policy options such as regulation of manufacturers versus education of consumers. Advocates and lobbyists might credibly provide germane information about interested or affected groups, propose policy, and argue for or against policy based on group interests. Elected and appointed officials credibly generate the policy instruments, for instance, to re­allocate funds, create a new program, or provide more oversight for existing programs.

Find out more about Roles and Communication Practices.

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Appendix: Public Policy Writing for the Web

Adapting public policy information to the Web