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Roles and Communication Practices

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Communicating in the Policy Process:

The two checklists provided here will help you evaluate your products for readability and appropriateness.

Features of Effectiveness

A public policy communication is most likely to be useful if it addresses a specific audience about a specific problem; has a purpose related to a specific policy action; represents authority accurately; uses the appropriate form; and is designed for use. Make sure that your communications do the following:

  • Addresses a specific audience about a specific problem. In policy work, time is scarce. Specifying a communication’s audience or intended recipient(s) and the subject or problem(s) saves thinking time for writer and reader (or speaker and listener). The information’s relevance for the recipient should be made clear.
  • Has a purpose related to a specific policy action. Policy cycles have several phases. Multiple actions and cycles are underway simultaneously. Timing matters. Agendas change. Stuff happens. Therefore, explicitly stating a communication’s purpose and relevance to the recipient makes it more likely to get timely attention.
  • Represents authority accurately. Policy communications do more than present information; they also represent a type of participation and power. In order for a policy communication to be taken seriously, to have influence, and to influence rightly, the communicator’s role and status—a citizen with an opinion, an expert with an opinion, a spokesperson for a non­governmental organization, a government official—must be accurately represented.
  • Uses appropriate form. Settings of policy work have their own conventions for communicating. Use the document type, style, and tone of presentation that are expected for the purpose and that accommodate working conditions in the setting of its reception.
  • Is designed for use. People’s attention is easily distracted in settings of policy work. Dense, disorganized text will not be read or heard. For people to comprehend under conditions of time pressure and information overload, contents must be easy to find and to use. Written documents should chunk information, use subheadings, and organize details in bulleted lists or paragraphs or graphics. Spoken texts should cue listeners’ attention with similar devices.

Measures of excellence

No two communications are exactly alike, but every public policy communication should try to meet criteria for clarity, correctness, conciseness, and credibility. Make sure your communication is

  • Clear. The communication has a single message that in­tended recipients can find quickly, understand easily, recognize as relevant, and use.
  • Correct. The communication’s information is accurate.
  • Concise. The communication presents only necessary information in the fewest words possible, with aids for comprehension.
  • Credible. A communication’s information can be trusted, traced, and used with confidence.

Summary and Looking Forward

Public policy work is populated by multiple actors in varied roles who recognize the significance of communication. Distilled into a general method for practical writing, that recognition can guide you, whenever you write public policy, to think about the rhetorical fundamentals.  Those fundamentals are role (who am I? what is my authority?); genre (what type of document or talk should I create?); purpose (what do I want to accomplish?); message (what do I want to say?); audience and reception (to whom, under what circumstances?), and medium (how should I convey this message?). This method keeps you on track, enables you to produce under pressure, and supports your accountability. Use it to write a problem definition, next.

Further Reading

Allison, Libby, and Miriam F. Williams. Writing for The Government. The Allyn & Bacon Series in Technical Communication. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.



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