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Restoring Trust in Government Matters

Despite heightened rhetoric about engaging citizens, improving customer satisfaction and restoring public trust in government, little significant success in doing so is evident today especially when we focus on the passage of the fiscal measure passed late on January 1 by Congress after more than 500 days of debate. This in part is due to partisan differences as well as to complexities in our system of government and a reluctance on behalf of elected officials to engage and to work together on behalf of citizens. 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.

What are the consequences of not doing so?

To not do so eventually leads to community and voter distrust. To not do so sends a message that public managers and elected officials believe themselves to know what is 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 managers’ 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 requires that public managers and elected officials engage and honor the community as to its priorities. They must also 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. These actions should accomplish more than this fiscal measure and most legislation does. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on January 2, “Yes, to all those who say all the other things that don’t happen in the bill …I don’t know any piece of legislation I’ve ever voted for that did everything that I thought it should do. While this bill doesn’t accomplish all that we need to do…it is a good way for us to have a happy start to a new year by taking a first step.” In a more explicit way of describing his vote, Representative Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said that passing the legislation was as if “someone stopped hitting you in the head with a hammer, and you are supposed to say, ‘Thanks So Much!’”

One of the most effective ways of restoring trust in government is through good, understandable, consistent and continual communication with the three categories of citizen customers: ADVOCATES – who will do anything to support what government does whether that be out of loyalty, familiarity or understanding; APATHETICS – who statistically make up the largest group of customers and voters and who don’t feel any loyalty to government or commitment to the community but continue to do business with government and remain compliant as long as someone doesn’t come with a better offer; and, ASSASSINS – who raise objections through social media and in public hearings as well as putting up communication barriers to doing business with government so that everyone around them feels the same way that they do. 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.

Just as good businesses have learned that incorporating the voice of the customer in everything that 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. Six crucial rules help to make the process effective:

  1. Never underestimate the emotional power of human nature and the desire to belong as well as citizens’ ability to understand what is really happening regardless of political rhetoric
  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 and voter 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
  5. Speak plainly by avoiding encrypted and compressed jargon such as occurs when a group of people research a problem, then build concepts that rely on compressed jargon or acronyms and over time, some members of the group use the new terminology to impress others shutting out and angering the late participants unfamiliar it.

In the final analysis, organizational commitment by government to delivering results and improving citizen trust requires more of a commitment to actively engaging citizens as consumers of government information, customers of government services and as decision makers (voters). 1. As a consumer of government information like statistics, data or regulations, citizens have evolved around that world from simply exchanging information to processing information wherein citizen communication ranges from passive – informing others of planned efforts to be active – to empowering citizens to directly participate in decisions often through the use of new technology like modeling, simulations, decision support technologies (MSDST) and social media. 2. Citizens also are consumers of services like planning, zoning, public safety, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These interactions require citizens to differentiate between the tangible quality of the service provided and satisfaction with how the service was provided. As an example, physicians tend to be evaluated by patients based both on medical outcomes and their bedside manner. So too, government needs to evaluate every interaction and how to add value at every specific juncture that will translate into credibility and trust. 3. Citizens are also decision makers through voting and their ability to make decisions has been enhanced by new information networks, communication technologies and social media.

Citizens need to know that government can be trusted. Just as citizens are responsible for paying their bills, so too, is government. To quote President Obama on January 2: “ We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred. If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic, far worse that the impact of a fiscal cliff.”


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].









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One Response to Restoring Trust in Government Matters

  1. Robert Morrison Reply

    January 20, 2013 at 8:16 am

    May I respectfully suggest a 4th category needs to be added. Those that are semi-engaged because they feel government may be poorly run, wastes money and is seldom given the possibility to act. They need to be heard and asked to speak by their elected officials. Many elected officials never ask for comments and tell the person where and how to give them.

    The 4th category people are not totally apathetic but want to engage if given the proper venue and felt someone wants to know.

    If a citizen comes into an office to get help they need to be able to speak to someone who can offer some help if the request is legitimate.

    Education in variious areas is citical for both elected and career officials. Too many people in government just say leave me alone and do not have the skills nor willingness to make the citizens experience worthwhile.

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