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A Bid to Better Coordinate Communications

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page C04

When it comes to communications, Fairfax County government has multiple faces and voices. And that gets confusing.

Somewhere in the winding halls of the Government Center, newsletters are being prepared that could puzzle recipients because they don't all bear the same logo or have a date. County employees might be answering their phones with a plain old "hello," instead of identifying the office. On holidays when government offices are closed, voice mail messages might not be changed to note the closure, angering callers who expect a prompt reply.

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Officials said they haven't heard complaints about such things happening.

But to make sure they don't happen, the county is embarking on a project called the Countywide Communication Initiative. A joint project of the Office of Public Affairs and the Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection, it is expected to take several months to complete.

The purpose is to come up with standards for communications -- those aimed at the public and those aimed at other county employees.

"We're developing a countywide strategy with one goal -- to create and maintain a unified look, feel and message to county communications, both internal and external," said Merni Fitzgerald, director of the county's Office of Public Affairs. "This is not intended to create a cookie-cutter government. This is trying to put together and promote integrated programs, services and resources so that everyone in the county and all the staff can use them."

The most populous jurisdiction in the Washington region has a government to match. It has more than 11,000 employees and a $2.7 billion budget. The communications project does not have a budget of its own, but it will involve staff time to attend the meetings of five subcommittees that have been formed to come up with suggestions.

Right now, even county employees often are not aware of all the ways they can get their message out, Fitzgerald said.

"We have cable TV, we have a print shop and mail service, we have e-government and kiosks and the county Web sites," she said. "If we can all work together, it will lead to greater efficiencies."

The project is supposed to foster cooperation among agencies that rarely interact. For example, one early proposal is for a county Web page on which agencies would list upcoming forums and public appearances. Other agencies could look for forums to join, instead of developing separate presentations.

The public may notice subtle changes. Receptionists will be instructed to tell callers how long it will take to find answers to their questions. Voice-mail messages should provide an alternative number to call for immediate assistance. Standards will be developed so everyone can follow uniform guidelines for answering telephones and writing newsletters.

"Say you are Jane Q. Public," Fitzgerald said. "You receive three things in a week's period of time from the county. If you look at them, it's hard to tell they all come from the same place. There's no standard logo. The overall goal is to create a standard identification for the county."

Fitzgerald said she does not know of any residents who have complained that they were confused when getting a county newsletter or calling a county office.

"It's more proactive," she said. "We were named an award-winning government by Governing magazine a couple of years ago. But you can't rest on what you've done in the past. You have to look for ways to improve. And one way is to better integrate our communications."

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