Communication image from Shutterstock.

Gabe Klein, former transportation chief in DC and later Chicago, has just published a book, Start-Up City. We’re pleased to present a few excerpts. In this one, Gabe talks about how an agency must communicate well with the public if it’s to be successful.

Why should the private sector have a monopoly on high-quality marketing? On next-generation customer engagement? On technology-enabled products and services? [When I started at DDOT], communications to stakeholders were generally fair to middling in quality and consistency, we weren’t very proactive, we needed to listen more, and some of our services had grown stale, if consistent.

[I worked] to communicate with the public effectively while empowering our great communications and public relations staff to open up the black box that had been instinctively created. Their first reaction was always shock. Really? We can talk about all of this stuff the agency does?

In DC, people were not used to someone aggressively selling the program as much as I was, but the reaction was very positive internally within the government and externally with the business community and the public at large. The public appreciated our efforts and the ability to know our reasoning behind the projects we were undertaking, and there was a lot pride within the agency that we were being recognized.

In fact, Karyn LeBlanc and John Lisle, who ran our communication and marketing efforts, were frequently asked to speak around the country about best practices in government communication. Our embrace of social media was one of the first in the country at that scale. From Twitter to Flickr to Scribd to our own blog and live chats with the public, the black box opened up and the public had the access they wanted and deserved.

Chicago grapples with a culture of not communicating

In Chicago, meanwhile, there was far more confusion and skepticism within the government about our overhaul of the communications program. The culture of the political machine had taken a heavy toll on the city and its staff. The month before I arrived, Mayor Daley’s commissioner of streets and sanitation was indicted. People casually joked that the next most likely position after someone was an alderman was cellmate.

Although I thought this was funny, it was also tragic, and dozens, if not hundreds, of Chicago and Illinois government workers had gone to jail over the past twenty years. To say the public lacked trust in the government is an understatement, and the honest people working in government were understandably shell-shocked from the constant scandal playing out in the papers and the courts.

Rahm Emanuel was coming in on the heels of twenty-two years of Mayor Richard M. Daley and forty-three years of Daley family control in total. Tumult, nervousness, and excitement ran amongst many government employees eager to turn to a new chapter, but many were also scared to find themselves on the cusp of a new era with unknown changes to come.

Against this backdrop, in May 2011, I immediately adopted an open-door policy with the press and not only returned their calls without a great deal of oversight, but aggressively worked to sell the Emanuel administration’s new vision for CDOT and beyond. The mayor and I articulated our goal of moving people within the context of creating jobs, healthier citizens, and a more robust economy—messages aligned with the mayor’s mission.

The public responded positively to it. Why? Because it was all true and was tied back to our stated goals. With few exceptions, we also received positive reaction from the rest of our key stakeholders, who had been long awaiting this change.

I had my battles with city hall to keep talking proactively to the press. The culture under Daley had been to avoid having your name in the paper if you could. We kept pushing, though, and rebranded the agency, rebooted our website, started social media accounts, and created a Complete Streets initiative—an effort to ensure that users of all modes of city transportation can travel safely and comfortably—over which we had full control.

This excerpt has been edited for length. You can purchase Start-Up City from Amazon. See Gabe Klein speak and sign books on November 4 at the National Building Museum at 12:30, that night at BicycleSpace in Adams Morgan at 7:30, or at Upshur Street Books on November 24th at 7 pm.