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When two ideals collide:Balancing transparency and consistency in public sector communication

Conference contribution
Authors Magnus Fredriksson
Lee Edwards
Published in Paper presented at the 5th European Communication Conference, Lisbon 12-15th of November 2014
Publication year 2014
Published at Department of Journalism, Media and Communication (JMG)
Language en
Keywords Consistency, Institutional logics, Transparency
Subject categories Media and Communications


Transparency and consistency are contradictory communicative goals. Transparency enables organizations to incorporate audience feedback about their activities, develop stronger relationships with publics and manage issues before they turn into crises (Livesey and Kearns, 2002; Christensen, 2002). Consequently, transparency leads logically to adjustment of communication over time. Consistency, on the other hand, aims for a coherent identity and a strong voice for organisations in settings where recognition, trustworthiness and legitimacy are at stake (Christensen et al., 2008). Consistency is thereby grounded in assumptions that stability, not change, is the best approach to communication. The balancing act between transparency and consistency is problematic for most organisations but even more so for public administrations as they have to handle issues and matters that are incompatible by default (Wæraas, 2011; Christensen et al., 2008). As modes of communication, transparency and consistency are mobilized by different logics (Thornton and Ocasio, 2008). For example, a study of Swedish governmental agencies (Fredriksson and Pallas, 2012) shows that many have policies and strategies where “openness” is stipulated as a core value for communication. In this context, communication is seen as a tool to support not so much the organization itself, but rather to support society’s democratic processes. Openness is essential for the control and scrutiny of administrations. However, most agencies also describe their communication aims as to express organizational identity, create a distinctive character, and gain visibility, recognition and trust. Here, being consistent – controlling communication in order to act as one body and talk with one voice - is essential for the agencies. This paper investigates how organizations manage to handle transparency and consistency when they describe the aims and goals of their communication activities. We analyze the communication policies and strategies of Swedish governmental agencies, as manifestations and representations of ideas – articulated or taken-for-granted – about matters relevant to organizational performance. In such documents, agencies justify their communication activities, and give instructions about how these activities should be performed. They mobilize their ideas about communication, its purpose, and its what efficient and/or successful enactment (Brown et al., 2012; Hart, 1997). More than 180 of the 238 governmental agencies in Sweden have these kinds of documents and a first mapping shows that both transparency and consistency are presented as an ideal outcome by a majority of the organizations. The analysis in this paper will show how transparency and consistency are conceptualized by the agencies, what different conceptualizations might mean for how they are (not) related to each other, ordered in any certain order, and connected to specific situations and/or stakeholders. Organizational recommendations for managing conflict between the two concepts will also be explored. The paper will conclude by considering how the balancing act between transparency and consistency can both limit and enhance the democratic role played by the agencies in this study. We also reflect on the implications of the findings for third sector and private sector organizations, which must also balance transparency and consistency, albeit drawing on different logics to the public sector institutions in this study.

Page Manager: Webmaster|Last update: 9/11/2012

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