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By Christine Springer
Despite heightened rhetoric about engaging citizens, improving customer satisfaction and restoring public trust in government, little sustained success in doing so is evident across all levels of government even when there is a sincere commitment to delivering services equitably. This may be due as much to the complexities of our system of government as it is to a reluctance to engage. After all, to do so requires an organizational commitment to delivering results, acting with integrity and transparency, truly listening and communicating clearly with all stakeholders.
And, what are the consequences of not doing so?
To not do so eventually leads to discovery by activists and to community and voter distrust. To not do so sends a message that public managers believe themselves to know what’s right for citizen customers even when those citizen customers are doing everything possible to tell them to go in another direction. To not do so supports the worst case made about government and public management intentions.
To trust the voice of citizens by soliciting their input and acting on what they say isn’t easy but it is necessary. It starts by understanding how citizens interact with government and then requires that public managers speak plainly to citizen customers rather than through encrypted or compressed jargon that protects them from accountability as it enshrouds them and the whole process in red tape.
For example, Washington State’s Department of Revenue tripled the number of businesses paying the use tax on products purchased out of state – collecting an extra $800,000 over two years – by rewriting one letter so that it was more understandable. Words such as abeyance, cease and utilize have since been phased out, replaced by suspension, stop and use. This led the Governor to order all state agencies to adopt “plain talk” principles and to eliminate the use of legalese, acronyms and jargon when communicating with constituents.
Traditionally, citizens interact with government in one of three ways:
It is important to understand that at the most basic level, every government agency’s citizen customers can be divided into three categories: advocates, apathetic and assassins.
Advocates will do anything to support what the government and the agency does whether that out of loyalty, familiarity or understanding. To do business with their favored agency, they will travel farther, pay more and offer copious amounts of free advertising and volunteer hours to further your agenda.
Assassins, by comparison will suffer great inconvenience, whether it be at public meetings or through persistent blogs, to raise objections, put up communication barriers and avoid doing business with the agency. They will do everything in their power to make sure everyone around them feels the same way.
Apathetics, who statistically make up both the largest group and the largest number of voters, are not necessarily dissatisfied. They just don’t feel any loyalty, bond or commitment to the community or the agency. They are pre-occupied with other things. As a result, Apathetics will continue to do business with the agency and remain compliant as long as someone doesn’t come around with a better offer. To be successful in dealing with citizen customers means finding a way to keep Assassins from becoming Activists… to develop Advocates into Activists…and to turn Apathetics into Advocates and then Activists over time rather than having them fall into becoming Assassins.
One of the most effective ways of doing so is through good, understandable, consistent and continual communication. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation found when it implemented Plain Talk in five urban neighborhoods, public policy works best when decision makers, community residents and citizen customers communicate effectively. Their program helped adults, parents and community leaders develop the skills and tools needed to communicate effectively with young people about reducing adolescent sexual risk-taking. After four years, they learned that the principles for success included:
1. Community residents should be central to the decision-making process about the program because those residents have the biggest stake in changing community behavior and norms.
2. Residents need to come to consensus about what changes in the program are necessary. They are only able to do so if they are able to speak plainly and openly with one another. Government agencies need to listen to the resident recommendations.
3. Communities need to have access to, or the means to obtain, reliable information about the problems and practices that they are trying to address and that the information needs to be communicated to them in understandable ways.
4. Adults need to understand the reality that some youth are sexually active.
Such an understanding can only occur when those adults are able to communicate openly, plainly and without bias to the affected youth engaging in conversations about how to develop strategies suitable to their own culture and circumstances.
Just as good businesses have learned that incorporating the voice of the customer in everything they do, from product design to service delivery, will distinguish them from their competition so too public agencies that communicate effectively not only build community but community trust. Several crucial rules help to make the process effective:
1. Never underestimate the emotional power of human nature and the desire to belong.
2. Reach out to citizen customers and don’t simply wait to hear from them because then it will be too late.
3. Set standards and note when those standards fail to be consistently met because when that happens community support will dissipate.
4. Build a sense of community through continual communication and by trusting the voices of the community in responding to clear requests for input, feedback and guidance not through the creation of new institutions.
5. Speak plainly by avoiding encrypted and compressed jargon so that those being served can easily understand what they need to in order to received services in an equitable manner. Don’t let jargon get in the way of delivering services equitably to those in need.
Author: Christine Gibbs Springer is the Director of the Executive Masters Degree in Emergency and Crisis Management at UNLV, the only program of its kind in the United States. She has served on Congressional Panels developing performance metrics for DHS/FEMA grants, a FEMA panel to develop core competencies for college curriculum and degree programs, and on the Congressional Panel evaluating FEMA post-Katrina last year. She also serves on the Nevada Citizen Corps Board of Directors and the National Academy of Public Administration’s Board of Directors. She is also a member of InfraGard. She is founder and CEO of a strategic management and communications firm, Red Tape Limited, incorporated in 1986 with offices in Nevada and Arizona. To contact Springer, email [email protected]