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We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By John Carroll

Before we press on, we should first decide if the public perception of public institutions is a relevant issue.  An October 2013 report by the Pew Research Center (“Trust in Government Near Record Low) may give us pause. Trust in the federal government is near an all-time low (19% of those polled), with 28% reporting a favorable view of the federal government, and 73% unfavorable for Congress. Not a good start, is it?

Yet on the flip side, 62% of those polled had a favorable view of federal workers. Can we say it’s the institution and not the workers? Maybe, but state government garnered a 57% favorable view, with 63% for local government. I could almost wrap up this article here by lending support to former House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s observation that “all politics is local.”

The closer the public servant is to the served, the more they seem to be appreciated. I remember polling the public about our employees back in the 1980’s through the 2000’s. Our results were consistently high marks and essentially the same as many other local governments – people love their own police, fire, and teachers.

Now that it seems we have an issue. What is a “perception” and how is it shaped? Perceptions can be how we see ourselves, what we do, how we see others and the world around us, as well as how we are viewed by others (in this case, the public). Perceptions are what we believe something to be based on inputs, experiences, traits, gender, economic, education, and all the rest. When it comes to perceptions (like opinions), there is no absolute truth or objectivity.

perceptionOur perceptions are colored by who we are and our participation in the world around us.  Without venturing too deeply into a more postmodern voice, the Pew Research report would seem to indicate that in the public’s perception, there is (lots of) room for improvement.

When I started out in law enforcement in the late 1970’s, I learned very early on about perceptions when responding to calls for service and heard often contrasting accounts from participants of the same occurrence. I would then submit a written report that had my perceptions of what I thought occurred.

In the mid-1990’s, when Community Policing was taking off, among my responsibilities was creating a Citizens Academy where interested folks could learn more about law enforcement and take a more active role in their neighborhoods.

One experiment I did in each class was to have a high school aged Police Explorer enter the room without notice dressed as a “youth gang member (as seen on TV, not in real life),” rob me of my wallet and leave. I then polled each student to get a description of the suspect and what they saw. It never failed. Every time, every student saw something different. Suspect descriptions varied wildly among height, weight, gender, clothing, race, age, etc. Even in a sterile learning environment, perceptions of the same event were diverse. People form their own perceptions.

Yet, we deserve some of the credit for the negative perceptions, stereotypes and cultural pokes at our public sector persona. In an episode of the wildly popular comedy, Modern Family, parents Phil and Claire Dunfrey criticize the revealing outfit worn by their oldest daughter Hayley by saying, “you are supposed to be dressing for a (college) disciplinary board, not the Secret Service!” Ouch. Funny? Yes. Our fault? Yes, again.

This leads me to my Walt Kelley moment, as noted in the title of the article, a much quoted variation from the “Pogo” character. Perhaps we should first look in the mirror to assess the perception and fix what we can. In July 2013, I wrote in the PA Times online about strengthening the federal workforce and listed stories about very questionable behavior by public employees appearing that week in major media. These are the things we can control.

There are certainly some examples of colossal incompetence in government (Benghazi and the Affordable Care Act rollout), outright dishonesty and criminal behavior. I worked for a sheriff who went to federal prison in 2007 for corruption during the middle of a widespread scandal on falsifying crime figures. Last year, former Detroit mayor and rising political star Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for wide ranging corruption.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is credited with turning around the City of Baltimore during his tenure as Mayor. Yet, his police commissioner, Ed Norris, spent 6 months in federal prison for misappropriating funds. Governor O’Malley’s successor, Mayor Sheila Dixon – distinguished by being the first female mayor and third black mayor – was forced to resign after being found guilty of misappropriating gift cards intended to help the poor. Unfortunately, there are many, many more examples.

Does the public sector really have to worry or be concerned about improving the public’s perception of public institutions? In a word, “yes.” Is it the responsibility of the public sector to take that initiative or would it be perceived as simply self-serving to engage in spinning positive public relations exercises? “Yes” and “it might.”

Most public agencies have well trained public information officer that act as the bridge to the media. It is important to get relevant information out to the public and other times, it is shameless agency self-promotion. Image making is perception building.

Instead of relying on those filters, our own actions can speak louder than words. Public sector leaders should lead by example. Be honest, do the job you were paid to do to the best of your abilities and weed out the few whose actions create the negative perceptions for the rest of us.

Millions of workers at the local, state, and federal levels trudge off to contribute to the common good every day. Just like the old Ivory soap ad, 99 and 44/100% of public servants have the best of intentions. They are hardworking people with concerns, fears, aspirations and dreams like everyone else. They have consciously chosen the path of public service instead of another career. They pay their bills and taxes (yes, we pay taxes too), they look forward to their next vacation, and want to spend more time with their loved ones.

In our great American social contract, we do serve at the behest of our public. If we serve the public poorly, expect repercussions. If we serve them well, expect nothing. After all, we didn’t get into public service for praise. How do we improve the public’s perception? Remember why we got into public service in the first place. This is my perception.


Author: John J. Carroll, Ph.D., M.P.A., is an Assistant Professor for Public Administration, Huizenga School of Business & Entrepreneurship, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Prior to joining academia, he served in the public sector for more than 30 years.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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