Writing for Government Agencies in a Partisan Political Environment

When political passions get heated in a free society, individuals writing for government agencies can find the mere act of posting information challenging. While I’ll provide examples below, the short version of my advice is: “Write what the party/person in charge says, but don’t alienate the opposition. You need to write for everyone.”

Doing what the boss says

A lot of what elected officials do is allocate dollars in the form of a budget for the federal/state/municipal government. Different political parties have different funding priorities, to the extent that a program that was highly touted by one party can be cut or canceled when the opposition comes into power. You can debate whether this is “good” or “evil” if you like, but it is one of the realities of representative government. For the technical writer, this change in party can become challenging if one of your jobs is to write public outreach content for a government agency website or publication. How do you handle it when a prominent program is canceled?

This happened to me at NASA when the Obama administration canceled the Constellation Program, and it would’ve happened to me again had I stayed around for the Trump administration’s cancellation of Obama’s mission to an asteroid. Again, it’s a fact of life, and if you’re a partisan of one particular party or simply a fan of a particular type of program, it can be hard on the morale when one of your favorites gets axed.

You still have a job to do.

Often, the direction for what to say in the event of a policy change will come from top of the agency. And if the direction is, “Stop writing, pencils down,” then that’s what you do. This became a challenge when Constellation was undergoing review and, eventually, budgetary constraints. The work was still going on–slowly, quietly, but purposefully–until the official order to cease and desist finally came down. So what are you expected to write about X hardware or program review, knowing that the program might go away soon? This is where you stick to the Dragnet approach of “Just the facts.” You explain what the story is, what the hardware is doing, and what progress has been made to date, and that’s it. You don’t talk about future work or what happens next. The in-house term I heard was “not getting ahead of the administration.”

Finally, the announcement finally came down that Constellation was to be shuttered. That announcement came from the top–the NASA Administrator. There would be some political wrangling on Capitol Hill, which eventually led to parts of the program being preserved, such as the Orion spacecraft and the heavy-lift launch vehicle now known as the Space Launch System or SLS. What happened then is that the outreach team–along with a lot of other contractors–got downsized and, in some cases, relocated elsewhere within the NASA system. The websites we’d been populating remained up for a while, then went into archive mode, removing them as primary links and making them a little harder to find. Then the new mission, focusing on SLS and Orion, came about, and the outreach work ramped up again.

The agency continued, hardware was abandoned in place or repurposed for the new mission, and some of us moved from wherever we’d been relocated back into the human spaceflight realm, and we had a new mission to promote for a new administration.

Not alienating the opposition

Barring the occasion of a continuing resolution, which happens more and more often, most U.S. federal budgets are passed through a majority vote, with the majority party comprising the bulk of the votes and some of the non-majority parties signing on occasionally for their own reasons. If you’re writing policy documents in a partisan political environment, it is good to identify bipartisan cooperation on the agency’s goals or programs.

The 2010 NASA Authorization Act is one such example, as it has been passed and reaffirmed by individuals from both major parties across multiple congresses since it was first passed. Bipartisan activities are important to note when you want to demonstrate that a program/mission is continuing an ongoing policy and has broad political support from “both sides of the aisle” in the legislature.

If you’re in a position to quote people from multiple political parties in favor of a particular policy, so much the better. Otherwise, if a new policy is in the offing and it faces strong opposition, you sometimes have to toe the line and restate the declared goals of the policy/program, emphasizing how it meets the needs of the public as a whole.

Bottom line

Government agencies in free societies have a certain amount of latitude when it comes to executing their specific mandates. However, they can’t say things their duly elected or appointed leadership does not want them to say. Therefore, if you find the back-and-forth of changing parties and priorities disorienting or unpleasant, you might be better off working for a business or advocacy group with one goal (profit, specific policy outcomes)in mind. Otherwise, it’s important to remember that, whether you’re a civil servant or a government contractor, the content you create–like the agency you serve–is meant to serve all of the people, not just the ones elected to office.


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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