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  • Writer's pictureDarren Coffey, AICP

What’s Old is New Again: Dialogue between Government and its Citizens in the 21st Century

The issues of citizen interaction with government, government accountability, public trust, transparency, openness, and “sunshine” have been around for a long time, but the gap between citizen expectations and government actions seems to be widening. Pick a local issue. Is it a national retailer looking to locate in your community and run amuck over your local regulations? Is it an economic development project to expand the water infrastructure in your rural community to attract businesses and diversify the local tax base? You name a community, and they have a controversial issue either under way or on the horizon. How a locality deals with these issues is critical to the outcome. That may seem obvious, but it isn’t – and often, that means a negative result – typically for the locality, business, residents or some combination thereof.

For instance, how a Wal-Mart locates within a community matters. Does it partner with the local government on a site and collaborate (however informally) to mow down any citizen opposition? Well that tactic has been proven to work for the retailer. Citizens still shop there or they wouldn’t continue to operate, let alone repeat the formula in the next community. But what impact does that have on the local government officials, its relationship with its citizenry, and the next important project on the “list of things to do”? The answer is that it can have a profound and significantly deleterious outcome.

Of course, part of the beauty of our system is that we can “vote the bums out” and that can be an effective check and balance system. More often than not, it does not necessarily result in intended outcomes, and rarely does it effectively effectuate permanent change in government. It does not have to be that way though. Why can’t a local government, or state and federal for that matter, engage its citizenry in a credible way that builds positive relations instead of eroding them? It’s not that government doesn’t need or want to listen and communicate better. In the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of public agencies that have expanded staff to develop public information officer positions. An historical approach to insist on a slow and lethargic government to prevent radical change has become counter-productive in our 21st century environment. Today, public involvement goes only so far as to meet a statutory requirement. This means of communication is not only ineffective, but it rarely solicits input from citizens until it is too late. At that point – “the deed is done” – and a hostile citizenry feels dejected that issues are ramrodded through when it mattered most. Then the vicious cycle starts all over again with the next issue or idea. The ultimate answer in many cases is that government works to bridge the communication gap between citizen expectation and its own the government’s ability to provide that standard is impossible to achieve. This needs work…

The need of the many outweighs that of the few, even if the few are vocal which is typically the case. That fact does not diminish the message of those few, nor the goal of the locality to represent the “silent majority”. What is often missing in these instances is a neutral arbiter. A third party that can listen to both sides and try to carve out a win-win scenario before the lawyers are called in. Historical memory may indicate this as overly idealistic, but to all but the most rigid ideologues, it is very possible.

The art of the deal is not just reserved for the business community, and it may very well be the key to renewed trust between government and its citizens. One locality’s motto is “Responsive and Responsible Government”. Many of its most vocal citizens would disagree with this motto, but it is the elected representatives’ sincere objective. So, what’s the problem?

There is a gap in communications and the vehicles through which government speaks and citizens listen. It’s just that simple. The citizens speak at the polls, they speak at public hearings, sometimes they speak at public meetings (although not often enough), and the local officials typically do listen. Isn’t that the way it’s suppose to work? Not really. Maybe in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but not in the 20th and certainly not today. That isn’t a dialogue. It is a one way communication.

The elected officials say, “Well, my platform was clear and the people elected me, so I’m going to do what they mandated me to do.” And the people say, “Well, we showed up in droves with a formal petition to demand a certain action which contradicts what you said you would do, so that means that you should listen, and modify your position, and ‘do what is right’.” So who is right?

That depends on the issue, the details surrounding the issue, the means of communication, and many other specific factors related to a specific situation. It could be that neither side is entirely in the right (which is often the case). It could be that one side is clearly correct and the other side just does not have all the facts. So whose fault is that? Well, it may not be anyone’s fault, but it is the local government’s responsibility to do everything that it can do to get the relevant information out to its citizenry regardless of the issue, a project’s timing, or other mitigating circumstances. As with most things, however, this is easier said than done.

Even with communities large enough to have a public relations or public information office, it is difficult, if not impossible, for those officials to know all the ins and outs of every project underway in that locality. It is also difficult to tell what projects may be controversial and which ones may not be. Try predicting the vote of an elected body sometime prior to the meeting – it is difficult to do – contrary to populist belief.

So what constitutes a meaningful dialogue and how does one occur between a government and its citizens? When is it necessary? How do we change the current paradigm and restore trust in government?

One project and one locality at a time.

Some localities may only need to tweak how they are communicating with their citizens. Others may need to change their whole outlook on how they interact. Some localities may embrace the changes that are needed and others may need to be forced – either by legal action or by the next election. One thing is clear – every locality can improve and every locality should strive to improve.

In my experience, the most open governments are the ones that receive the most criticism. (could be argued that these are the most lethargic governments and constantly face hurdles and lose sight of common goal i.e, C-ville. Draw connection how these types of governments can embrace criticism positively). That is largely because they have fostered the most citizen interaction, which is the goal of a democratic society. Seems like a weak reward – and it feels like it too. It tends to discourage the continuation of open dialogue and open government. If its never good enough, then why try syndrome.

These communities are the most fertile, and have the best chance, for an improvement in community relations and a growth in trust through strengthened dialogue because they already have many communications systems in place. Perhaps all that is needed is a neutral third party to help facilitate, or even mediate, a solution to a specific problem. Or maybe an entire change in institutional philosophy is needed, but it can’t come from within the organization. This is almost a business audit based on communication – it can be just as effective with inner-workings of the government within departments as well as special interests (i.e., we just found out that our Parks & Rec department has been paying the same guy to mow the same field that the Water & Sewer Department is paying to mow the grass – and has been for about 15 years!!) Maybe this is an angle we can promote.

An esteemed former colleague once quipped that, “You can’t be a prophet in your own land.” That statement is dead on. Even if the opinion of local officials is valued by the leadership and elected body, it may not be politically feasibly to accept. That may sound odd, but it is a common occurrence. Part of the success of the American justice system relies on the concept of a neutral arbiter. But going to a judge is very expensive – to all sides. Many times a judge will order arbitration anyway. Few issues should have to get to that point though, particularly if a government is being proactive and is open to a dialogue.

It is a shame how many issues that blow up are due to lines being drawn because of ego, stubbornness, or unwavering political agendas, but that is the underlying cause in most cases. When citizens demean and berate a local official who has been working hard for years and is truly dedicated to that locality, it is hurtful and dispiriting. Yes, that’s part of the territory. Its also why so many good folks are leaving public service. It is also why many battle lines are drawn. If I call my locality’s County Administrator a lying, conniving thief, because “I heard that”….. what does that do to my credibility? Where is the proof in an unsubstantiated statement? It is destructive, it undermines the credibility of the speaker, it undermines the message, and that carries over to any organization that person may represent. So, the battle lines are certainly drawn at that point if they haven’t been already.

If both parties are open to dialogue though, even at what may seem like a point of no return, then a positive solution is still possible. Maybe not for the issue at hand, but certainly for future projects and future community relations and communication strategies.

They say that it is never too late. Maybe. Maybe not. What is for sure is that the final outcome is up to the parties that are involved in the dispute. The resolution lies with those same parties. Perhaps with some third party assistance though!

Litigation is a tried and true means of resolving a specific conflict – however expensive that may be in time and money. Fixing how a government communicates and relates to its citizenry will not be achieved by a judge or jury. A systemic solution can only be achieved with cooperation, effort, and some significant level of trust.

As we move into the 21st Century, we must advance a meaningful dialogue between citizens and their government at all levels. A steady, possibly rapid, deterioration of American democracy will continue to occur if this does not happen. How can we as a nation remain as a beacon to the rest of the world if we cannot maintain the credibility of our own governments in the eyes of its citizens? How can we even think about trying to spread democracy throughout the world if we don’t have a good handle on how to sustain it ourselves (we are only 233 years old)? We must improve and strengthen the dialogue between citizens and government, and the time is now.

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