What Can Public Servants Learn from The Incredibles?
In The Incredibles 2, a media mogul offers to rehabilitate the image of superheroes. He explains that because the average person only sees one side of the story—the bad news—they don’t support the work these heroes do. As he puts it: “If we want to change people’s perceptions, we need you to share your perceptions with the world.”
What are public servants but real-life superheroes? So maybe we can do the same thing. First, Government needs to communicate more, and more skillfully, under the assumption that it will have to become its own source of information rather than communicating primarily through the media. Often public relations and information sharing in the government is in reaction to an event, a crisis, an external request, or a scandal, rather than being about telling our stories every single day. In 2017, one writer noted that the U.S. agency handling hurricane response coordination had 634,000 Twitter followers, while President Trump had 38.2 million and Kim Kardashian had 54.8 million. Every citizen is curating their own media and their own worldview, and we need to be competing for each of them with the same level of skill that any large corporation does. We may not win the trust of everyone, but we’ll at least be fighting for it
If we want citizens’ trust, we need to embrace radical transparency. In a world where people volunteer to put cameras in their homes to be on TV and politicians leak taped conversations of each other, the public expects to see everything. Every gap in the information they see will spawn a conspiracy theory and every cover-up or spinning of bad news convinces another citizen that we can’t be trusted. The assumption should be that a citizen who doesn’t know what we’re doing, good and bad, or doesn’t understand it, isn’t on our side.
Finally, we need to take share our own perceptions with the world. Two-thirds of Americans use social media as a news source and social media adoption is increasing across the globe. People trust recommendations from friends and family 92% of the time, which is a lot more than how they trust their own governments. Public servants are their friends and family, so why not use those voices and those networks to change the public debate? Our perceptions can help shape their perceptions and help them feel connected to their government again. So share more of your own perceptions, and empower your team to do the same.
Why don’t we do this already? It’s because of the fear that someone will share the wrong thing and cause trouble. But we live in a world where only 1/3 of Americans trust the government to do what’s right and only 18% of Americans trust it to do the right thing most of the time. We can’t afford to keep using old methods and old ways of thinking in this new world. Losing the public’s trust will mean catastrophic harm to our ability to serve that public.This is a very different way of doing things, but it might be what successful, trusted government in the Information Age requires. Step into the spotlight, heroes.
This piece was originally published in a different format on Apolitical and can be found here. Joseph Maltby serves on the National Leadership Team for Young Government Leaders, an association of young leaders across the federal government seeking to educate, inspire, and transform, as well as serve as a coordinated voice, for current and future leaders in government. Joseph works as on organizational change management issues for a federal agency.
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