Opinion

opinion | HKS PolicyCast

Once you’re elected, how do you communicate with the public?

Fall 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics Fellow Brent Colburn worked on President Obama’s 2012 campaign and subsequently served at the Department of Defense.
Tatiana Johnson/Harvard Kennedy School
Fall 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics Fellow Brent Colburn worked on President Obama’s 2012 campaign and subsequently served at the Department of Defense.

The Boston Globe presents the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, a weekly podcast on public policy, politics, and global issues. HKS PolicyCast is hosted by Matt Cadwallader.

While political campaigns are often chastised for not focusing enough on policy, they still play an important role in shaping the narrative around the role of government, both by influencing who gets elected and determining which issues officials, once elected, invest their time in.

Of course, the challenges of campaigning and governing are very different. Unfulfilled campaign promises are legion. But if campaigns initiate policy discussions, what role should government agencies play in continuing them? Is there something government officials can learn from campaigns in order to be more responsive to citizens’ needs?

This week on the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, we’re joined by Fall 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics Fellow Brent Colburn, who worked as national communications director for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and subsequently served at the Department of Defense as assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs.

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Colburn discusses the differences between campaigning and governing, drawing on his experiences leading communications efforts in both types of organizations to contrast the two.

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“Elections are very simple,” he says. “You have one goal, which is to get more people to show up on Election Day and vote for your candidate than for the opponent. . . . When you’re in government, particularly someplace like the Defense Department or the folks over at the White House, you’re balancing a series of priorities over a much longer time horizon. You don’t have that same deadline that Election Day gives you, so you’re constantly dealing with second- and third-order impacts of the decisions that you make.”

He goes on to explain how the Department of Defense integrates public affairs into its decision making, how government agencies can adopt some of the more entrepreneurial aspects of campaigns, and how agencies can change to attract the talent required to tackle challenges like cyber threats.

You can listen to the full interview embedded up above or download it on iTunes. You can also jump to specific sections by forwarding to the time code listed below:

• Both campaigns and government agencies have to communicate with the public; is there a difference in how each approach that task? (0:54)

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• How do government agencies integrate communications into their decision-making? (3:29)

• Is it natural for government agencies to take into account communications goals? (5:23)

• Can entrepreneurialism, like that on campaigns, ever exist in government? (7:13)

• Can government change to compete with private companies for top talent? (10:27)

• What’s the process for communicating big decisions at the Department of Defense? (13:54)

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• Have modern tools like social media changed the way the Department of Defense approaches communications? (18:40)