Communication Breakdown

Inspired by a recent interaction, I’m more convinced than ever that we need better communications tools and/or methods for city governments.  City governments are behemoth organizations with multiple departments, each with its own sub-departments, sets of managers, and groups of people assigned separate tasks and responsibilities.  This structure fragments the organization, making not only internal communication inefficient, but communication with and from external parties confusing at best and impossible at worst.

I imagine the advent of email, listservs, forums and other web-based tools have helped break down barriers and encourage cross-department communication.  However, it also may have exacerbated the situation by grouping too many people into particular conversations, leaving no specific person the responsibility of responding.  These tools may also be viewed as the solution and therefore lead city officials into thinking there is no need for something better.

For internal communications, several tools do exist; I’ve used a couple of them in different jobs (Pivotal Tracker, JIRA).  I found them both to be useful in engaging multiple people from multiple departments and locations; what is important for making them effective is an early commitment to a single tool and repeated encouragement/reminding that interaction must take place within the single tool.  Otherwise, the use of multiple channels leaves people confused about their responsibilities and can discourage future use of the (would-be-useful) tool.

External communications seems more difficult to manage and also broader.  A whole field of “customer relationship management” exists, dealing primarily with the need of companies to manage conversations with customers, clients, and sales prospects.  This process deals primarily with incoming messages (or “leads” in the case of sales), but does not tackle the generation of those conversations (which is important to cities/elected officials and to planning departments in particular).

In a recent New York Times article, the idea that too much information (flowing freely though these modern communications tools) can actually hinder productivity was presented.  The author spoke with Robert M. Solow, a Nobel laureate economist who noted, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”  The article’s main point is that we’ve reached a saturation point in the efficiency of internet-based solutions for managing data, knowledge, and conversations – we now need physical (rather than virtual) reorganization to continue progressing.  This back-to-reality conclusion may well be virtual technologies’ most salient contribution yet.

-Terra Curtis