We or I?

Dear Management Doctor:

I attended your planning management course in San Jose Last week. It was very enlightening and refreshing. I have a simple question that I forgot to ask: With so much emphasis placed on customer service and public relations, do you prefer planners' correspondence to be formal or informal (the "Staff/We" as opposed to "I"). Although applicants are sometimes put out by the impersonal tone, it seems much more professional and effective in framing the issues, particularly in regard to incompleteness letters. In the past, I have felt awkward writing in the first person and it seems to suggest a personal interest that gives the applicant the wrong impression. It also can be misconstrued by outside parties. I like to save the charm for personal contact. I am very interested to know your preference.

A Confused Planner

Dear Confused Planner,

I suggest if you are speaking for the department you use “we.” But you can also make it personal by signing your name and providing a phone number and email address. However, for some communications, I see no problem using “I.” For example, “I’ll get back to you on this next week.”

Best wishes,

The Management Doctor


Reader Responses

I liked the answer to the inquiry. Although I prefer the first person to make the correspondence more informal and personal, I believe that too many government officials use "I" in a manner that implies a personal exercise of power rather than an exercise of authority emanating from a public policy decision made by elected officials. I suggest that the staff members use the term staff or, in my particular employment situation, the county when providing advice on established public policy. On the other hand, I feel it is very important to understand that the tone of correspondence should be non-confrontational.

Mike Harper
Washoe County, NV


The answer to the debate, of course, lies in the context. Most department communications should be couched in the editorial "we." However, there comes a time when the authority or responsibility of the individual employee to make a decision on behalf of the jurisdiction needs to be emphasized. For example, if it falls to the Planning Director to make a particular call, then he or she should call it and not hesitate to state that "I" made the decision. Both the public and those higher up will respect the employee who understands and correctly uses the authority of the position.

Bruce Kistler, AICP
City of Lakeland

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