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Public Administrators Must be Dedicated Champions of the Truth

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

By James Bourey
October 4, 2021

Certainly no one would challenge the assertion that public administrators must strictly adhere to the truth in carrying out their professional responsibilities. However, I would extend that commitment to not only being dedicated to the truth in all our actions, but also to serving as strong advocates in today’s truth-challenged world. While I have only been a consumer of information from the media and other sources for the past 60 years or so, I cannot remember a time when there was so much misinformation masquerading as the truth. The proliferation of electronic “news” outlets and social media sites bombards us with a huge amount of “information” on a daily basis. The amount of false information and outright lies is not only befuddling, but also an existential threat to the operation of our governmental institutions. Public administrators must be committed to the public understanding the truth about the world around them.

Given the overwhelming amount of sources and volume of misinformation, you may question, as I often do, what you personally can do to help bring truth to so many that are blinded by the what they perceive is correct. To those of you that feel this way, I offer two things to consider. First, if those like you, who know how to navigate through information sources and discern fact from fiction cannot help others, who can? Second, it is not up to just you, but rather, it is up to us. If a vast majority of public administrators sign on to this quest to bring truth to the ill-informed, it can and will make a huge difference.

Assuming you buy into this quest, the question becomes how. The central tenant of my approach may be hard for some of us, but for a wide spectrum of local government administrators it may seem familiar. We will rarely be successful approaching people with the intent of showing them how their views are wrong and ours are correct. Our best, and I believe, only real hope is to be non-ideological. We cannot approach the problem by trying to convince anyone who has divergent views from ours that we are right and they are wrong. Instead, we must talk about what they believe to be true and where they get their information from. We must walk through the voracity of their information and ask how they know that is correct. We must resist saying that Fox News is not really news but editorializing and CNN is really telling it like it is. We must challenge those with different views about how they know that the Facebook posts they read are accurate. I know this is hard. For virtually my entire career, I could not express my own personal political views. I had to be totally non-political. We need be similarly non-ideological in our conversations with those that are drawn in by peddlers of misinformation.

If we can get people to question the sources of their misinformation, we then need to help them find good sources. These sources have to be seen as non-ideological as well. We need to demonstrate the importance of seeking out differing perspectives. I grew up listening to Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news. I believe I was getting a reasonably balanced view of the world. If we ever could rely on a single source of even a handful of sources, it is difficult to do so today. In addition to broadening their sources, we need to help people evaluate the logic, consistency and validity of messages. Obviously, this is not a short ten minute conversation. In fact, it will almost always need to be more than one conversation. It may even take more than one conversation to just convince someone you are not just trying to brainwash them into believing your political views.

At this point in reading this, even those that could be committed to taking this journey for the truth may be thinking, “Wow, this is a lot of work, how do I have the time and energy to do this?” Yes, it will require significant time, energy and patience. But if we who are committed to public service will not make this effort, who will? If a significant percentage of the tens of thousands of public servants take on the challenge, we can make a tremendous difference.

Clearly, the nature of your conversations with people will take many different forms, but please consider four basics in approaching others:

  • Be non-ideological.
  • Focus on how people know their sources are accurate.
  • Advocate listening to a variety of sources of information.
  • Help people learn how to evaluate the accuracy of what they hear.

Today, a wide spectrum of misinformation has helped to foster a divisive and dangerous environment in this country. When polls report that a significant majority of those who identify as Republicans believe that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election despite no evidence that this is true, we have a serious problem. We can either accept that as inevitable, or commit to making a difference.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager.

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