What This Scenario Shows

This detailed scenario shows public policy making in process. The problem is the need to finance state government operations and public services in the coming year. The process is the annual budgeting cycle. The major players are three elected officials (the governor and the chairs of the state senate and house of representatives budget committees). Five appointed professional staffs (the governor’s, the two chairs’, and the two committees’) advise and assist the elected officials. Other players are experts inside and outside state government with knowledge on specific topics, policy analysts who will advise authorities on ways to approach the problem, and advocates representing special civic, commercial, or political interests in the solution. The resulting policy is a set of priorities and related recommendations for spending.

From this scenario, you might be able to see components of policy making functioning in a flow of actions to conduct a process. In budgeting, basic institutional actions are these: to define priorities in relation to current conditions and goals; to review previous goals; to take reasoned positions on needs, argue for them, and negotiate with others who reason differently; to propose specific objectives and spending levels; to deliberate alternative proposals and decide; to inform and invite public participation. The flow of activity in this particular process is typical of institutional policy making.

Typical integration of communication and action is shown here, too. Communication products materialize the action and enable further action. For example, what most people call ‘the budget’ is not the policy itself but rather an intentionally persuasive document (composed by the communications director, in this instance) that argues for objectives based on the priorities and proposes funding allocations to accomplish them. It is only the last of many documents that move the process along. At earlier stages, working discussions are materialized in draft documents. Circulation of the drafts for comment, editing, and revision facilitates negotiation about priorities. With persuasive expression and specific figures, the final budget document serves both general public discourse (persuasive expression of priorities and objectives) and institutional discourse (specific figures) about governmental spending in the coming year.

Practical aspects of communication in this scenario deserve comment, too. From a communicator’s viewpoint, the budgeting scenario, while orderly as an annual and scheduled process, is quite messy in reality. The scenario suggests the density of information, variety of demands, balancing of competing interests, coordination of roles, even the juggling of schedules that characterizes a policy process and create the working conditions under which communications are produced. For communicators, this scenario shows well the need for a disciplined approach that keeps you on track, enables you to produce under pressure, and supports accountability in the process.

Such an approach is outlined at the end of the next chapter. First, however, a contextual description of information creation and use in public policy making provides necessary background for communicators in the process.

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