Comprehensive Communication Tools and the Culture of Government Teams

How is organizational culture changing in government offices? And how are collaborative platforms part of that evolution? Although this is far from a scientific observation, I think as our political culture has embraced more grassroots populism over the last several years, space for similar participatory culture has opened up at least among the structures and blueprints of government org culture. We’ve come a long way since I first started the “Government 2.0” podcast in 2009!

We can see part of this transition just by reading what people have written about such organizational culture over the last several years. A 2013 article mentioning “participatory leadership” had good suggestions for its time, but seems quaint in that it mentions nothing about technology, nothing about communication and collaborative work platforms.  

So even though the article calls for “mechanisms such as an employee advisory team that allows employees to provide input into policies and programs to design a first rate work environment,” we can picture all of these programs being enacted in real time, absent shared work platforms beyond Google Docs, perhaps in a meeting room like the one in The Office. The article even mentions “open and honest communication  . . . with a handwritten note,” and while I hate to be dismissive about the power of handwritten notes, let’s just say that nowadays it’s the very exceptionalism of a handwritten message on paper that makes it noteworthy. After all, we can private message people–or praise them publicly–on integrated platforms like Slack.

Fast forward to 2017. Slack and Asana are in play. But not all government workplace cultures are participatory. This piece in Governing took me by surprise because it led with the negatives of public sector workplace culture and almost reads like a libertarian manifesto: “Curating a healthy workplace culture in the public sector poses unique challenges,” it reads. “In contrast to the business world, governmental organizations have constantly evolving priorities, excessive bureaucracy, shifting political winds as elected leaders come and go, ebbing and flowing budgetary resources, and, too often, a lack of understanding by leaders and managers of culture’s power and influence.”

To solve these things, the article points to the example of Coppell, Texas’s city government, which has cultivated a “high-performance workplace culture” including “a code of ethics, an oath of service, behavioral guidelines and what the city describes as a ‘culture of credibility'” which is “reinforced through extensive learning/training programs and a variety of other means.” All of which sounds incredibly disciplined, probably efficient, but not necessarily participatory. I fear that such a regimented work culture is susceptible to groupthink and bad decision-making unless it feels democratic and deliberative to team members. I have no idea whether the good people in the Coppell city government have such a voice, but the article doesn’t flag it.

But then check out this 2018 piece, “Organizational Culture in Local Government,” and it’s also in Texas–in fact it’s the Texas City Management Association’s blog. This almost reads like a worker cooperative: “mutual trust, fairness and justice for all employees, recognition of individual worth . . . People join for the purpose of giving rather than to get.” The emphasis is clearly on building non-punitive, non-fear-based, participatory culture. The article goes on to emphasize that leadership shapes the organization’s culture. But again, nothing about communication platforms.

The only posts that seem to account for the role of comm tech in creating an egalitarian workplace culture are those written by the people selling the apps, like Staffbase; their blog contains “11 Ideas How to Rethink Internal Communications—and Boost Your Employee Engagement,” and the suggestions aren’t bad–and they recognize the role of the platform. The post points out that the rising generation is looking for values alignment, and in my experience those who look for values alignment in their organizations almost always look just as hard for participatory work environments.

Integrated communication platforms can, in fact, establish trust by providing a natural, organic, accessible method of collaborative work and easy, horizontal communication. This is all because the wave of democratization and grassroots politics that we’re seeing grow in the political realm is also taking shape in government workplace culture, making platforms that integrate internal and external government communications, including texting and service requests, normal instead of the exception. The development of collaborative platforms isn’t just a business evolution. It’s a governance evolution and, really, a humanity evolution.