Public Servant’s Role in Restoring Trust in America’s Institutions
At NextGen 2016, Young Government Leaders (YGL) introduced a Declaration representing its views on an essential relationship that effects every citizen in the United States—the relationship between citizens and their government.
For decades, this relationship has been defined by increasing tension and a declining level of trust. In such a climate, how do we as public servants do our part to help restore the faith that citizens once had in government?
A good place to start is to ask ourselves what we as public servants—and citizens—expect from our government. In YGL’s Declaration, an array of citizen expectations are presented, including equal and fair treatment, embracing diversity, excellence and innovation, and partnering with citizens to overcome public challenges. In considering all of these, it is apparent the enormous breadth and depth of expectations that are placed upon the government and the services it provides. High as they may be, such expectations are a good starting point for how we as public servants can help restore citizen’s faith in government. After all, we are the critical link between public policy and public service.
One of the cornerstones of our democracy is equal and fair treatment of citizens. While the government strives to uphold this value, like any imperfect entity, it will sometimes not get it quite right. And even when it does, a perceived lack of fair treatment is just as a bad, fueling short-term outrage and long-term distrust. So how can public servants address what seem like a constant stream of no-win situations, where no matter what we do, nobody seems happy?
One way to improve the sense of equal and fair treatment by the government is to approach it as a relationship. Often, one of the first issues in a bad relationship is poor communication. Does your agency or work unit communicate what it does to the public? Does it use old or modern methods? What about asking for feedback? When problems arise, does it get out in front and own those problems or let them fester into a scandal? As with any relationship, clear, timely and consistent communications build trust, and allows the relationship to more easily weather the problems that invariably crop up. Another way to look at this is simply pursuing the value of transparency. In today’s climate, we as citizens don’t want to just receive information produced somewhere in a bureaucracy, we want up-to-date, relevant information and services and be able to easily engage with government when we need to.
Embracing diversity is also a key area that public employees can focus on to improve trust with citizens. Even though we may not have much to say over how a policy or program is designed, we have an obligation to execute public policy in a way that is impartial and sensitive to the fact that American citizens are extremely diverse—age, race, ethnicity, political views, religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientation, for example. Indeed, try as we might, no one person fits neatly into any particular category—we are all unique. As public employees, we should always be cognizant of the diverse population we serve, and be considerate and attentive to this fact as we fulfill our duties.
There is also the widely-held perception that government is generally slow, stodgy and barely competent—where innovation and excellence go to die. This perception isn’t accurate for all public entities of course—like NASA or the DARPA, but for much of government, the stereotype exists. In reality though, many local, state and Federal organizations do continually innovate, working tirelessly to improve services for citizens. For example, just last week the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released an access to care tool that anyone can use to monitor patient wait times at over a thousand VA medical centers and clinics around the country—something not done in the private sector. This shows not only a willingness for VA to be a leader in an a major industry, but towards greater transparency and a rebuilding of trust with citizens. As public servants, while we build a strong relationship with citizens through good communications, and we should also take every opportunity to highlight how we are making public services better.
Good relationships have an array of benefits, and one is the ability to solve complicated problems. Often, public employees serve in a facilitation capacity working directly with citizens, businesses, nonprofits, government entities and other stakeholders to address public matters. In many instances these require a carefully-orchestrated approach involving many parties. For example, building a light rail line through a densely populated area or delivering health care services to vulnerable populations. In these scenarios, our role isn’t to simply be a cog in a larger machine, but it is quite special and critical to how our system and democracy functions on behalf of the public—we are active facilitators in producing the best results possible for a large and diverse citizenry.
Without a doubt, for many public employees, working in government has become a daunting proposition: trust is strained, effective and strong public services often go unnoticed and are seemingly unappreciated, and where there are problems, they are magnified in the media. To top it all off, budgets continue to go down while public expectations go up. We can, however, do our part as public employees to counteract this slide by examining our own role in delivering public services, and how we—individually and collectively—can work towards restoring the public trust, and the overall strength of our enduring public institutions.
By Jonathan Ludwig, YGL Marketing Director
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