The tightrope walkers : an exploration of the democratic role of public sector communication in the digital age

  • Barbara Walsh

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis helps address the gap in literature on government communication and its role in democracy by theorising how public sector communication can contribute to, or mitigate against, democratic engagement in an age where citizen’s demands of government are changing, enabled by digital technologies and social media. In 2011,when research on this thesis commenced, the Australian Government was progressing an agenda of citizen-centred government and engagement through “Gov 2.0”. The research explored the organisational experience of public sector communicators in light of this agenda, and of changing citizen expectations of institutional responsiveness due to digital and social media. Theorising of the communicator’s role arose from analysis of links between the internal communicative practices and culture of APS portfolio departments, the agency of their in-house communicators and their external approaches to citizen engagement through social media. By drawing on the works of Andrew Abbott (1988),Stanley Deetz (1992) and others, these links have been explicated to the broader democratic role of government departments and their in-house communicators. The thesis evolved through qualitative research comprising a broad review of the public relations, organisational communication, public administration and government communication literatures and Australian Government policies and websites. This was conducted iteratively alongside a reflective, grounded analysis of data from semistructured qualitative interviews with ten Assistant Secretaries of Communication in the Australian Public Service (APS) in Canberra, Australia, conducted between 2012- 2013 in the time of the Labor Gillard Government. Social media was used as a case to explore relevant issues. Philosophically, the research was undertaken through a constructivist grounded approach within a broader social constructionist framework, in recognition of the presence of my own experiences in senior communications roles in the APS. The model of public sector communication proposed in this thesis opens up areas for further research in communicative intent and democratic use of social media by government departments in democratic societies. With further research and refinement it has the potential to address issues of transparency and trust in public sector communication by use as an indicator against which government communications activities can be measured, providing stakeholders and citizens with information to assess public manifestations of democratic intent. Further areas of research include the exploration of communicative intent in government departments and how government agencies and departments, enabled by their communicators, can move from managerialist frames to more emancipatory practices which may result in the facilitation of a more robust democracy.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorLawrence Pratchett (Supervisor), Monica Kennedy (Supervisor) & Kerry Mccallum (Supervisor)

    Cite this