The two reasons internal communications is different in the public sector


Does internal communication and engagement differ in the public sector from the private sector?

I’d say unequivocally, yes. Here are two reasons why:

1. Resourcing

Increasingly, private companies recognize that internal communication and employee engagement are foundational requirements for performance. Want to drive sales? Enhance customer focus? Innovate? All of these strategic business imperatives depend on the way employees connect, communicate and collaborate.

The mission-critical importance of internal communication and engagement has become entrenched in business best practices. Although this recognition does not always translate to action, the internal communication function tends to be better resourced with staff and financial resources in the private sector than in the public sector.

In my experience, public organizations tend to lag behind, and lack the burning platform to spark a significant commitment to internal communications through appropriate resourcing. Too often, internal communications remain the poor cousin of external communications.

This dynamic often sets up a stubborn self-fulfilling prophecy – public organizations often fail to see the value of internal communication and engagement (because the function is starved of the vital resources it needs to perform), and as such the under-resourcing/under-performing pattern tends to be self-perpetuating.

2. Alignment

One of the most fascinating differences between private and public sector organizations is how the process of alignment takes place internally.

In a private company, there is a natural alignment around the simple imperative of “follow the money”. The primacy of profit creates a very clear sense of internal priority – whatever the sector, the company is in the business of making money. As such, strategic alignment is relatively straightforward. While not all staff may agree with the corporate direction, it carries with it a powerful gravitational pull toward the expected focus, behaviours and outcomes.

That same natural alignment is rare in a public, or even a para-public organization such as a not-for-profit or association. These organizations tend to be pulled in multiple directions, often as a result of changes in decision or priorities made at a political or board level.

The result is often a lack of clarity, focus and strategic direction – these organizations are often highly siloed and can be paralyzed by internal differences in orientation or priority (a luxury a private company does not have).

Interestingly, it’s been my observation that public and para-public organizations that are well financed and have significant reserves often have the most difficulty with internal alignment. They lack the natural tension caused by having to make difficult decisions about scarce resources.

This sets up a situation where the need for internal communication and employee engagement is exacerbated, yet very often, that need is not immediately recognized by senior leadership who don’t feel the pain caused by the sub-standard flow of information and ideas within their organization.

Some of the most significant opportunities for internal communicators to have a transformative impact can be found in just these types of organizations – but beware, the challenge is not for the faint of heart.

What other differences do you observe between the public and private approach to internal communications?

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