Moving past word of mouth culture in government

Ideas on building stronger, more open internal communication cultures

Moving past word of mouth culture in government
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Back in November, I wrote a short piece called “We need to rethink work of mouth culture in government” and I was surprised at how many people shared it, commented and reached out about it.

I’ve been thinking about ever since — and specifically how to address the issue of lack of inclusivity in our internal communications.

It’s been over two years since I joined the BC Government, and I’m really enjoying the work and the people. But when I reflect on my time here, I have to admit that I’m still feeling quite disconnected and out of the loop from my larger team. It’s this sense I can’t shake that there’s some meeting or teams channel or sharepoint site or onboarding guide I didn’t get, that would have or should have helped answer the very basic questions I (and others) have.

Questions like, who do I talk to for getting access to this tool we’re all supposed to use? Or, who else has worked on this problem? Or, did anyone take notes at that meeting I missed? Or, I just found this really interesting article that’s super relevant to our work, what does everyone else think about it? Or, I’m going to be in the office on Thursday, would anyone like to go for coffee? These are all questions that I’m certain are being asked, but they’re being asking in closed groups or one-on-one interactions, only for the benefit of those who are invited.

But, all big orgs have this problem, right?

Here’s the thing that’s made me think about this problem so much: I don’t recall feeling this way in the previous orgs I worked for, even though they were also in government and quite similar to where I am now. I usually felt that I knew who I worked with and what was going on, even though I often worked remotely (sometimes exclusively.)

Why? I think there are six main aspects that have enhanced the internal communications culture in the places I’ve worked:

  1. Open communications channels that people actually use. My previous teams used slack. And when I say that, I mean everyone used it, for almost everything (except for the important government recordy-type stuff that needed to be in an official doc or email.) Most of the things that I now get as email would have been slack messages: Executive updates, requests for help, team announcements, team calendars, sharing work, sharing notes, sharing resources… plus a lot of extra things like channels for important topics (eg mental health) and common interests (eg knitting.) When sharing everything openly becomes the norm, everyone benefits from every question, and trust and safety are built through two way dialogue between the different levels. In BC Gov we mainly use teams channels. They’re ok but they’re far from being the main way to communicate — Posts often get crickets, questions go unanswered. But the biggest issue with teams channels is that they rely on awareness and invitations, whereas in slack people can browse teams and join the ones that interest them. This means the majority of communication is still happening in closed, exclusive groups that are only available by invite, to those who know about them.
  2. A shift toward more open IT policy and culture. In previous orgs we mainly used google docs, which was open to the whole org by default and therefore easy to search and share across different teams and externally if needed. In BC Gov, our Microsoft folders are strictly locked down by default and sharing externally is quite difficult and inefficient. So even when we want to share and be open about or work, we come up against blockers.
  3. A focus on transparent, authentic communications over broadcast, marketing-style messaging — both externally and internally. Other orgs I’ve worked for have posted the majority of executive updates on slack (where everyone can openly react and respond) rather than by email (where responses are discouraged, or become a one-on-one interaction.) This kind of sharing changes the messaging too — updates were shorter and more personal. As well, authentic, human communications via blogging was a big focus in my previous orgs, whereas blogging in my current org is still seen as a bit of a rogue thing that only a few teams do (thankfully my team is one of those teams,) and most blogs that do exist are hosted on Medium rather than something official.
  4. Access to communications teams and tools. My previous orgs both had communications teams who coordinated and facilitated sharing through blogs, podcasts, social media and so on. We also had access to an official blogging platform. Where I work now, we have a fabulous communications and engagement team, but comms doesn’t seem to be a priority or capability in many of the other teams I work with, and often it’s completely separated from actual service delivery.
  5. Everyone owns and contributes to internal resources like intranets, wikis and onboarding guides. In previous orgs I’ve worked for, staff had access to internal wikis and onboarding resources that were regularly updated, and that anyone could contribute to. This meant that when we had a question about payroll or holidays or where to eat, we could easily find information, and we could also add or comment on information if it was missing or out of date. This enhanced the sense of community and shared ownership we all had, and didn’t put the burden on one person to be the gatekeeper all of the information. Formal, corporate intranets can be useful if maintained, but there’s also a need for an informal place too, where employees feel like they can ask and answer the questions that matter to them.
  6. There’s a culture of making things better and working openly, and employees have time in their schedule to do so. At GDS we had an official 80/20 rule — 80% of our time was spent on product work, and 20% was for contributing to the org with stuff like writing blog posts or contributing to guidance or helping a community of practice (and it was on our performance reviews so it wasn't optional.) But I’ve found in orgs where that’s not an official expectation, it less likely to happen. For example, 83% of the BC Gov Design Community said they aren’t actively involved in the community, and 60% said it’s because they aren’t given the time to contribute. Working openly takes more time, so if we want it to happen, we need to give people the time in their schedules to do so.

What can we do?

There are lots of good reasons to not work openly:

  • It takes extra time. Sharing a piece of work, posting in a comms channel, writing a blog post — those are extra steps
  • It requires taking risks (employees) and showing trust (leaders)
  • The things that are holding us back (culture, tools, policy) feel too complex to fix

But the risks of not being more open are higher — people feeling excluded or disconnected from the organization they work in is unacceptable and potentially dangerous.

So if we want to “fix” word of mouth culture, here’s where we need to start:

  • We need to loosen up the reigns on sharing and contributing. Data privacy for sensitive info is super important, but the majority of our internal documents don’t need to be treated like highly classified documents, particularly amongst internal staff. We need to make sharing easier, when sharing is possible. We also need to open up access to allow more people to contribute, to intranets, blogs and comms channels.
  • We need to look at what we are communicating and who is doing all the talking. Is it broadcast, one-way messaging, or does it invite an open dialogue? Is it polished, or does it feel human and authentic? Do people feel like they can and should blog? We need to start investing less in selling ourselves and more in sharing honestly, about the highs and the lows.
  • We need to prioritize sharing in places where everyone can see it. Leaders need to model this by shifting from updates and conversations over email/ in meetings, to putting the message in a place where everyone can see it. For everyone else, this means asking the questions: Could this email be a teams channel post? Could this post in a closed teams chat be a post in a more open space?
  • We need to take an honest look at our communications tools and how to optimize them. If the current communications tools and platforms aren’t being utilized, we need to start by figuring out why and what’s required to shift that. Is it a culture problem? A permissions issue? A design issue?
  • We need to make open sharing and contribution an expectation, not a nice to have. I’m not a fan of blanket rule-setting, but unless it’s there’s an expectation for everyone to work openly, it’s easy to deprioritize. If we care about this, we should make it part of process. Add it to the sprint tickets, make it a performance metric, put it on the to-do lists.

Or … maybe I’m wrong about all of this. I’m open to that. What’s been your experience with internal communication cultures?