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Gaining Back Trust

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dennis Martino
March 26, 2021

What has divided us as a nation? Certainly, political perspectives have split the country. This has amplified distrust of one another, distrust of news and distrust of science. Where and how do we begin to return to trusting these things? What role do we play as public administrators and managers?

It is evident from citizens’ and politicians’ behavior that our national ethos has been shaken by the past four years and beyond. The “populist” message of President Trump resonated with disaffected people of all stripes. But why the angst? What can public administrators do to help turn this state of distrust around?

During the Nuremberg trials, Herman Goring, Hitler’s Reich-Marshal, explained how Hitler and his ilk were able to mobilize normal people to act violently against Jews and others. In part, he stated, “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

Somehow a great number of people in the United States are convinced that the country is not what it was meant to be. They are of the belief that somehow they are diminished when anyone else makes progress. Of course, we have sad evidence that many people would love to revert back to the ‘50s—the 1850s.

Many clearly believe that their “rights” are without limits. We can see this play out at protests at state capitals related to mask wearing or other public health emergency measures.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which arose from excessive force and senseless violence against people of color, was painted as a violent reaction to police just doing their duty—a perception further inflamed by some cable media outlets and many elected officials. As that perception became more widespread, it was heard and believed by more people, especially as news outlets showed demonstrations of protest “spun” by many as a left-wing plot to push a socialist agenda.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken so many innocent lives, was dismissed by some elected officials who professed that it would just go away, or found a way to blame China for its spread. Again, politicians found someone to blame for a problem and convinced the citizens they had been victimized. They even suggested who the villain was.

Races have been pitted against one another by demagogues. Voter suppression and gerrymandering create more discontent and disenfranchisement.

States are colored red or blue on the map. Religion has been used to further divide the nation. Division is rampant in our everyday lives.

The disregard for science is one more division, as witnessed by denial of climate change or the need to socially distance ourselves in these times or the spread of the anti-vaccination ideology. All of this creates more and more distrust.

So, how to we restore civility and trust?

As public managers and administrators, we are the face of government to most citizens. The average citizen might not see much of their governor or United States Senator, but they come face to face with their city clerk or DMV employee. Public administration must elevate its posture to create a more harmonious society.

Our mission, as public administrators, is to provide the best possible service to the citizens in a fair and equitable way. One way, as stated in ASPA’s bylaws, is to, “Encourage the improvement of public service.” If we are to restore faith, confidence and trust of the citizens, perhaps we need to start with that basic purpose. We must provide the best services, with a high focus on ethics and citizen engagement.

A few small steps might be a great start, including:

  • Listen to citizens carefully whenever we are in contact with them. Assure them they have been heard.
  • Practice empathetic engagement with citizens and coworkers.
  • To establish trust, always be trustworthy.
  • We must maintain workplaces that embrace diversity without any hesitation.
  • Focus our attention on every citizen we encounter.
  • Treat every citizen with kindness.

The country’s mood is a reflection of how people feel about government. How we each behave as public servants is the key to turning things around. We only have control of ourselves so we must meet the challenge. Determined people can make the difference.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. Everything around the world is constantly changing, and we must also work on changing ourselves to fit better into society.

– Gandhi

Author: Dennis Martino is former director of the New Hampshire Bureau of Education and Training and adjunct faculty at Granite State College and Springfield College. Prior to his academic work, he had 21 years’ experience in labor relations as a union advocate and contract negotiator, acting as a workplace mediator with small and large agencies. He is a board member of the National Certified Public Manager Consortium, the American Academy of Certified Public Managers and the MASSASPA Chapter Council. He is president of the Belknap-Merrimack Counties Community Action program and the New England Organization for Human Services. He received his bachelor’s degree from St. Anselm College, his M.Ed. from Rivier University, and his MS in psychology from California Southern University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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