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Public affairs, the White House and democracy

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There are a handful of federal agencies, in my experience, where the public relations staff genuinely appear to believe that their job is to get reporters in touch with federal officials and do their best to get journalists the information they need to write a genuine news story.

There are others where the agency public affairs office itself has a mixed record, but there are still some public affairs officials--often career civil servants--who do their best.

Then there's the rest. As a recent survey of reporters who cover federal agencies shows, most journalists believe the vast majority of public affairs offices falls in this last category. For example, 85 percent of surveyed reporters strongly or somewhat agree that "the public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists' reporting practices."

I'd say the survey is correct. Many public affairs officials whitewash, obfuscate, take forever to respond to requests, don't answer the phone, monitor interviews and sometimes interrupt the subject when it appears he or she is going off-message, dole out information they don't want to give out but are forced to in tiny little parsimonious pieces in order to make the experience as frustrating as possible and generally do their best to match their corporate counterparts, who are masters at doing the same. (The difference being that the federal government is supposed to be accountable to citizens, for whom the press is a surrogate.)

Tempting as it is to blame individual public affairs officials engaged in that behavior, however, they're really not responsible. In fact, pity might be the best emotion for many of the political appointees forced to man the phones. Often they were hot stuff on the campaign trail or drawn into government after idealistic service in, say, an anti-war or public good organization. Now they're taking calls about federal financial system failures, no doubt wondering how they went from canvassing millions to that.

Rather, blame belongs at a systemic level, even though top officials at public affairs offices really can and should do more to counteract it. The problem is one of who's in control of the executive branch, and administrations' increasing attempts to centralize control of it in the White House. Presidents don't really have the power often attributed to them. We don't elect monarchs every four years. Even if we did, there's no way even a king could tear down and rebuild the federal government during four or even eight years; there are laws, organizational inertia, administrative checks, Congress and outside pressure groups preventing that.

Rather, as political scientist Richard Neustadt has noted, presidents have more influence that direct power--they have the power to persuade. However, each administration after the next (including this one) tries in any way possible to substitute control for persuasion and in every administration that results in a progressive ratcheting of the control over "the message" federal officials are supposed to deliver. Those poor political appointees (again, with a few exceptions) manning the phones are doing their job when they're being unhelpful.

What the solution to this sorry state of affairs is, I have no idea. However, administrations should understand that tightening their grip on every utterance federal employees make before a reporter isn't cost free, either. For one thing, it runs the danger of condemning public affairs offices to irrelevance. If the only thing I can get out of them is stock phrases and stalling, I'll call less. If that seems like a victory, then perhaps you don't really believe the federal government is accountable, after all. - Dave