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Communication and Transparency

EDITOR’S NOTE: We continue our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 4 of 14. As stated previously, the papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 14 are online.

Ryan Henderson

There is no denying that at this moment in our history people are weary of government. For many reasons, and with many people to share the blame, faith in all levels of government is at an all-time low. Citizen ire has been directed not just toward Congress and the federal government but also down to state and local governments. Fueled by bureaucratic gridlock in our nation’s capital and deceitful salaries in local government, citizens have come to mistrust public organizations and the administrators who run them. To put it bluntly, we are living in an anti-government culture and the public administration brand has come to bear much of the brunt.

Somewhere along the way administrators and politicians became less responsive and less transparent to their populace. Somewhere along the way citizens began to feel they had little if any impact on what government does (King & Stivers, 1998). Over time the line of communication from public servants to citizens became severed and meaningful dialogue dissipated. Concurrently, the ideal of government transparency has become less of a reality as citizens have begun to feel left in the dark. Improving the public administration brand in today’s anti-government culture can be done, but it requires changing the way public administrators currently operate. By communicating with citizens in the open and with meaningful dialogue, as well as being transparent about daily operations, the public administration brand in today’s anti-government culture can improve.

 At odds over Communication and Transparency
For as long as there has been public administration, there has been a fundamental question that practitioners have had to try and answer, which is, ‘How do we involve citizen participation in matters of affairs, but not to the point where it adversely affects the ability to administrate?’ Although the political system in this country is designed to reflect and enhance an active citizenry, it is also designed to protect political and administrative processes from a too-active citizenry (King, Feltey & Susel, 1998).  Many administrators understand the importance of allowing citizens to become involved in government operations, but many are also fearful that too much citizen participation will affect their ability to evaluate programs objectively and make decisions. In fact, a study conducted by the Kettering Foundation in 1989 found that “administrators believe that greater citizen participation increases inefficiency because participation creates delays and increases red-tape” (King, Feltey & Susel, 1998, pg. 319). However, that same study found that many administrators viewed close relationships with citizens as both necessary and desirable (King, Feltey & Susel, 1998). Equally as important, the Kettering Foundation’s study found that “citizens reported feeling isolated from public administrative processes. Although they care about the issues facing their communities and the nation, citizens feel “pushed out” of the public process” (King, Feltey & Susel, 1998). This feeling of isolation from government has festered for over two decades. The questions that now must be asked are, “How can the gap between citizens and their government be bridged and can public workers and ordinary citizens find ways to reconnect?” (King & Stivers, 1998, pg. 18).

In the article “The Question of Participation: Toward Authentic Public Participation in Public Administration,” King, Feltey, and Susel state that “addressing the limitations of current participatory efforts requires that public administrators become ‘interpretive mediators’” (1998, pg. 320). This simply means that public administrators, if to involve citizens in government, have to listen, interpret, and be responsive to the concerns expressed by citizens through open discussion. “Local governments can encourage and support engagement, it can be a facilitator of action by others, and it can be receptive to initiatives that come from residents, community organizations, and social entrepreneurs” (Thoreson & Carlile, 2011, pg. 24). By listening and allowing citizens to actively participate in the process of administration, they become part of the process and will inevitably view government and the role of public administration positively.

 Norfolk, Virginia and the Road to an Open Government
One local government in particular that has made it a mission of theirs to open up communication with the public, becoming more transparent and viewed more favorably, is the city of Norfolk, Virginia. A city of 200,000 plus citizens and serving a diverse populate, Norfolk has taken it upon itself to institute practices and tactics that reach out to citizens with meaningful dialogue.

When City Manager Marcus Jones took over as the chief executive of Norfolk in February 2011, he had to quickly change the citizens’ attitude about their local government. Jones came in at a time where morale, of both citizens and employees, was at an all-time low. The previous city manager had been removed from her position after a number of incidents occurred under her administration. At the time of Jones’ hiring, the city was also facing a 32 million dollar budget gap (Minium, 2011). In truth, Norfolk’s administration was experiencing a strong backlash from citizens who had lost faith in how government was being run. The city and its new city manager were experiencing the wrath of an anti-government culture first hand.

Creating the annual budget is one of the most important things a local government does. It is time consuming and detail oriented. In most governments it is done behind closed doors and away from the public eye. However, City Manager Marcus Jones knew something had to give if he and his staff were going to regain the community’s faith in how the city was administrated. For Jones to change public sentiment he knew he would have to take a creative approach. He decided that he would make it a priority to seek community input into the development of the upcoming budget by scheduling and arranging for community budget workshops. When and where the community budget workshops would be held would allow for citizens from all over the city to attend. Jones held four budget outreach meetings from February 22, 2011 to March 10, 2011 (Budget meeting, 2011). All four meetings took place from 6-8pm to accommodate those citizens who worked during the day. The four meetings took place in a different ward so as to be inclusive to citizens from all over the city. No matter the average income or demographics of the ward, all citizens who participated were given an equal voice in the development of the budget.

At these meetings Jones not only gathered information on community desires regarding the budget, but he also presented a power point presentation prepared with aid by the city council entitled “Rightsizing for a Well-Managed Government.” In the presentation, Jones discussed with some of the key stakeholders the “vision, priorities, strategic goals, objectives, and performance measures” (Rightsizing, 2011) for the upcoming budget year. The objective of the presentation was to promote transparency through the budget process. Jones and staff outlined what the goals and vision of the city were going to be and how they would be measured. The meetings gave citizens a closer look at the budget process and how he and his staff were going to prepare the budget. The meetings drew over 1,000 participants. From those who participated, Jones and his staff received over 1,000 suggestions for developing city priorities and budget saving techniques (Downtown norfolk, 2011).

The community budget workshops illustrated the fact that Jones and the city cared about receiving information and concerns from the citizens. However, believing that the city could be even more transparent, Jones asked that the city council to do something progressive and vote for the approval of televising city council work sessions. Televised work sessions were approved and citizens were then able to watch the manager and city council hold discussions involving the budget. For the first time in Norfolk’s history citizens were able to see their ideas and concerns incorporated into the upcoming annual budget.  The televised work sessions gave citizens an outlet to watch transparency in action.

 Improving the Public Administration Brand
Norfolk is not the only city, or the first, to have taken steps in fostering open communication and improving government transparency. Yet, Norfolk is an example of a local government that was viewed negatively, decided to be proactive, and went about unique ways of changing their image. The city is an example of what similar governments and other public organizations have to do in this time of anti-government sentiment. Even though there has been no research conducted to determine the effectiveness the community budget workshops had on improving citizen sentiment about government, in the end, it was the process that mattered. Jones showed that he and his staff were not going to do business behind closed doors, but rather, they would open up communication to the public and be transparent.

All public administrators, no matter the public organization, have to consider alternatives to the way they operate and work with their citizens. Improving the public administration brand will take time and patience but nothing will change if dialogue is not opened up to everyone. Transparency will only occur when doors are left open for the public to peak in and see what is happening. If citizens can openly voice there wants and concerns, and if public administrators listen and respond, then things are bound to change for the better.

Ryan Henderson is a  student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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