How to Answer a Question from the Public

by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.

Over the years, Federal Government communication has become very “fancy” as the technologies at our disposal have grown more sophisticated and our audiences, swimming in digital waters most of the time, are increasingly expecting the government to match private-sector responsiveness.

But our most essential job is to be accountable to the public. We receive appropriations (federal money set aside for operating federal agencies), but we can’t just spend funding as we wish; our expenses, and the way in which we manage them, are the province of the taxpayer, and we need to demonstrate that we are stewarding their funds responsibly.

As part of this task, our most basic obligation is to answer questions properly.

Working in a variety of federal government agencies over the past 15 years, I have observed that the simple act of receiving a question turns many a bureaucrat’s eyes wide. “I don’t want to end up on the cover of The Washington Post,” is the unspoken refrain. “I don’t want to have any headaches from saying the wrong thing.”

We’re talking about seasoned, senior leaders here. So what is it that has them so uncomfortable? Why is it that answers to even the simplest questions—never mind a complicated query or a complaint—can take so long to receive?

Well, there are a few things that get in the way, such as:

  • Templates. Every executive prefers to use previously approved answers if they can. Words that have been used before, preferably more than a few times and during an existing administration, are considered “blessed text,” and therefore safe to share with the public. It’s the variability that can get a leader in trouble—whether from preferred messages, preferred words, and even preferred ways of articulating objective statistics.
  • Approvals. Every agency has a pecking order that determines how words are generated and delivered to the public. It is a mark of senior status to be the last person to approve of words. This, in turn, can generate huge delays, as writers (“lowest on the totem pole”) haggle with subject matter experts, who must agree with the text before a director will even consider it.
  • Culture of Delay. In the civil service, the organizational culture typically decrees that the weightier a question, the longer it will take to deliver an answer. In several of my jobs in the federal government, I have been responsible for coordinating responses to complex questions, and it has not been unusual for deliberations of the answer to take more than three months to coordinate.
  • Customer Defocus. At the end of the day, “we” in the government are responsible for the people, but I recall being plainly told, many years ago, that my true audience was agency leadership – and not the taxpayer. This was something I found shocking at the time, but now I understand that it is the nature of the administrative state to expand itself, and as such the cynical words were just reality.
  • Lack of Standards. While the fact that plain language is the law (since 2010) has helped improve Federal Government communication considerably, even then it tends to move the goalpost slowly, as squabbles erupt over who has the best way of saying things plainly. Similarly, although there are clearly time-tested, common-sense best practices that can be learned and applied to the realm of questions and answers, there is a stubborn unevenness to agency communication across the board, resulting in a tolerance of poor work as “just how we do things around here.”

So how do we fix this “monster mess”? The truth is, it’s not all bad – a few small tweaks here and there can make an enormous difference. The key is to ride the wave of the things that government likes to do anyway:

  1. Templates: The preference of government for user templates provides a neat entree into simplifying the process of responding to customer questions. At the very least, every communication shop can collect the answers that have already been provided to the public into a simple Word document. As the questions change or evolve, the newer answers can be added to the reference book, so that simple queries are handled at a more junior staff level, without the need for a protracted concurrence process.
  2. Lean Six Sigma: While bureaucrats are averse to change and to risk, they absolutely love anything that helps to cut through red tape. If you can somehow engage the office in a discussion of quality and efficiency through a reduction in excessive steps to a process, you have struck gold.
  3. Benchmarking: Some agencies are kind of insular, while others always seem to be “out and about” at local free best practice events and conferences, talking about their work. Even if you don’t think you need the information, it’s a good idea to encourage your office to get out there and simply talk to other people.

When you do send an answer to a question, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Emotional Care: Agencies tend to be defensive, because they interpret a question as a kind of attack Although this can be challenging, remember that to the person asking the question, the government “holds all the cards,” and they would rather not be asking you anything in the first place. Keep your tone empathetic; put yourself in their frustrated shoes.
  • Direct and Thorough: As mentioned previously, the customer is only writing due to some sort of pain. The only “salve” they will accept is a complete and total accounting of the matter that concerns them.  Even if you can’t give them what they want (which will in fact be often), you should not shy away from telling them what you can, while acknowledging that some things are outside your purview or span of control.
  • Think Visual, Not Verbal: The civil service is filled with highly educated people, and those people tend to write a lot of words in response to a simple question. However, the public thinks in visual terms – think advertising, not blog post – and it is therefore helpful to respond to questions in a way that can be easily digested visually. This doesn’t mean (as many fear) that you should oversimplify your responses to questions at all. It does mean that your content should be intuitively understandable, grow more complex as per the demands of the user, and that you should avoid passively-aggressively bombarding the user with text.

In the future, of course, this whole conversation will be overcome by events, as agencies increasingly incorporate artificial intelligence, particularly instant messages and “chatbots,” to direct individuals to the content most likely to answer their questions.

In addition, there will likely be an emphasis on cutting staff costs and instead adopting a model where a few experts insert standardized responses to key questions in a database, which is then supplemented by a user “community” offering non-certified answers that are clearly marked as such.  While this may seem unrealistic right now, in the future as cultural expectations around government change, this type of forum (already in use in the private sector) could well become a standard part of the landscape.

All in all, customer service – at one time the “neglected stepchild” of public affairs, superior only to internal communications in status – is ascending in importance as the public has begun to demand answers, not just request them. As expectations continue to ratchet upward and technology marches apace, we will likely see a response from the government that emphasizes cost-cutting and minimal deviation (read: human interaction) to the greatest extent possible. Yet no matter how standardized and automated customer service becomes, there will always be a need on the part of the customer for an authoritative response to complex questions, delivered by a caring human being with integrity.

As such, customer service is a critical government function, one that can never be fully outsourced or replaced.

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All opinions are the author’s own and do not reflect those of her agency or the government as a whole. Public domain.

Dr. Blumenthal is a Federal communicator with a passion for promoting best practices in government communication. She is a former co-chair of the Federal Communicators Network and member of the GovLoop community whose best practice articles have been posted at GovExec, Government In The Lab, Social Media Today, and elsewhere. In her personal time, she is an avid researcher with an interest in citizen journalism. Her most recent book is “Patriot: My Journey Through America’s Undeclared Civil War” (2019). Dr. Blumenthal is also an activist in the fight against human trafficking. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from CUNY Graduate Center and a graduate certificate in organizational development from Fielding University. All opinions are her own. She has released this post to the public domain.