Strategies for Reconnecting Citizens and Government
Strategies for Reconnecting Citizens and Government
MRSC Focus, June 2001
In recent years, local government work has been handicapped by declining citizen
confidence and involvement in government. Opinion polls and a growing docket
of initiatives signal that citizens do not feel that government officials listen
to them, or that citizens have significant influence on community decisions.
Polls also indicate that the average citizen is acutely aware of government
shortcomings, but far less conscious of the benefits government provides. The
day-to-day services of local government are all too invisible to the naked eye,
until things go awry. "The record of American government successes may well
qualify as the greatest story never told," according to political columnist,
Government may be guilty as charged on some counts, and certainly government
must change to meet the demands of dramatically changing times. But it is misguided
to view government as if it is some foreign, occupying power. Citizens established
local governments to address their shared interests and needs. (Remember government
of, for, and by the people?) Citizens share a responsibility for how local governments
perform, and local officials must seek ways to re-engage citizens in shaping
There are small signs that we have begun to turn the corner and are moving
toward improved confidence in government. However, given the pervasiveness of
negative perceptions, action is needed. Government officials are finding that
they need new tools for better gauging and understanding the preferences and
needs of constituents in increasingly diverse communities. Better tools are
needed, too, for re-engaging citizens in the dialog about community direction
In addition, cities and counties need to better communicate about the value
of government. They must spread the word about government successes, without
whitewashing the problems that must be addressed. Finally, local governments
must honestly look at what changes are needed to rEconnect citizens with government
and to make government work in the new information age.
Evidence of a Problem
Recent opinion polls paint a grim picture of citizen understanding and trust
in government. One such survey found that two-thirds of the people surveyed
could not name their representative in Congress and that most respondents were
misinformed about how the federal (or local) budgets were spent. Numerous polls
conducted nationally and in Washington State indicate that trust in government
has eroded significantly, and that most respondents feel they don't "have a
real say" in what government does.
A national survey conducted by Hart/Teeter for the Council for Excellence in
Government found that 9 out of 10 respondents could readily cite examples of
the "biggest problems" with government, while 42 percent could not name any
successes. However, when asked about the value of specific government programs,
large majorities judged many of them to be successful and worthwhile. Reminding
respondents about specific government programs apparently elicited a more positive
response toward government. Surveys of Washington State citizens show similar
results and trends. (Examples of these and other polls may be viewed on MRSC's
A number of studies suggest a parallel decline in the level of participation
in civic, religious, and other voluntary associations. Researcher Robert Putnam
stirred considerable interest with a study that observed, symbolically, that
more people are bowling than ever before, but they are bowling alone-no longer
in teams. According to his studies, participation in many community organizations,
service clubs, and church-related activities has dropped significantly since
the 1960's. These declines are a concern because such organizations have functioned
as training grounds for future leaders and to build skills and habits of cooperating
for mutual benefit.
Roots of the Problem
Citizen discontent is, in part, a reflection of the failure of local governments
to stay sufficiently in touch with citizens. As the population and government
agencies grow in size, representatives in government begin to seem less accessible,
less accountable, and less in tune with the needs of the diverse groups they
represent. Government delivery of services by larger agencies may seem faceless.
Government regulations and permit processes tend to become more complex with
growth. Negative campaigning, misleading ads, and broken promises have further
eroded confidence in elected officials. Campaign financing practices lead citizens
to suspect that special interest groups and those with money control public
policy decisions rather than Joe Citizen.
However, government may also be blamed for societal trends and evolutionary
changes that government did not create. Changing demographics and family relationships,
global competition, and an impersonal technology revolution have triggered anxieties
about job loss, isolation, and other social ills. These fears may get redirected
toward government agencies that don't seem to be doing enough to cushion Jane
Citizen from a very bumpy road as we transition into the information age.
A number of trends leave citizens with less time and opportunity to put down
roots in their community or to participate in community affairs. An increased
share of households are single parent or childless households or households
with two wage earners. People are moving more often to the suburbs, or in pursuit
of jobs, affordable housing, and more pleasing environment. People also are
commuting farther. Many newer residential areas, including some gated communities,
seem to be designed more to "protect people from community" rather than to connect
them to it. Studies indicate that TV viewing is consuming increasing amounts
of our leisure time, in place of more interactive pursuits.
Economic trends, such as global competition, corporate consolidation, down-sizing,
and the technology revolution are disorienting. They also have created job instability,
especially for those who lack technology skills required for new jobs. Meanwhile,
welfare reform, regulatory reform, and decreased federal and state funding have
punched holes in safety net programs.
The Internet and other communication innovations transmit what Mindy Cameron,
former Seattle Times editor, terms a "babble of information" that doesn't distinguish
between well-researched information and opinion not based on fact. New communications
tools can contribute both to information overload and the rapid spread of misinformation.
Government Exists for a Reason and Offers Real Value
To regain citizen trust, government officials should work with citizens to
recall why we created government in the first place and what benefits it provides
us. As former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice eloquently explains, "We come together
as people to form government because together we can accomplish goals we cannot
accomplish alone. Unless we join together, we have no hope of protecting our
quality of life or our individual freedoms." Many expensive and extensive services
and networks, such as roads, sewers, public safety, or a social safety net,
cannot be accomplished if we proceed as individuals, pursuing only our own interests.
As Dan Kaline, a Missouri planner further observes, "A community requires that
its members accept limits on personal choice for the common good." In other
words, civilized people living together in communities must agree to certain
ground rules in order to live together in peace and harmony. The "tragedy of
the commons" parable provides a particularly clear illustration of this point.
In this tale, a pasture exists which is open to all to use. Each herdsman, in
pursuit of his own interests, can be expected to graze as many cattle as possible
on the common area pasture. As a rational being, each herdsman will want to
continue to add cattle to his herd to maximize his gain when selling the cattle.
For some years, the pasture may continue to support the separate herds. At some
point in time, as the number of cattle grows, the land will become overgrazed
and will be able to support fewer and fewer cattle. Eventually, even the original
number can no longer be supported. The moral of the story is that complete freedom
in a commons brings ruin to all. Unless the herdsmen cooperate and agree to
limits, the mutual benefits they receive from the commons will be diminished
or lost altogether.
Local government and our political process provide the means to sort out competing
interests and diverse needs that exist within a community. The political process
and public dialogue can lead to compromises and solutions that may be more equitable
to diverse groups in a community. As noted in an article in the Seattle Municipal
League's Issue Watch, "politics should not be a grubby confrontation of competing
interests but an arena in which citizens learn from each other and develop an
enlightened self-interest in common."
Existing government regulations and services generally evolved in response
to real needs. For instance, we adopted environmental protections in response
to instances of flood damage, declining water quality, and other undesirable
effects that we agreed were problems. Sewer systems and garbage disposal programs
were set up to address community-recognized needs. From time to time, local
governments and their citizens will need to re-evaluate whether these needs
still exist or whether a better approach to the problem can be adopted. Yet,
we need to recall the events and needs that led to the adoption of such programs
before too quickly discarding them.
Strategies for REconnecting Citizens and Government
The citizens of a community have a mutual responsibility for that community's
future. Local officials should focus on how to draw people into caring about
their community and recognizing their common goals. They should help citizens
to understand the connection between individual self-interest and what is good
for the community as a whole. Citizens will be more inclined to become involved
if they believe that their efforts will make a difference and will serve their
long-term interests. The best-supported government policies result from collaborative
efforts among government, citizens, stakeholders, and the civic and religious
organizations that are the moral anchors of our communities. As former Seattle
Mayor Norm Rice observes, we need "to build partnerships, not draw lines in
the sand." As Beverly Stein, Multnomah County (Oregon) Board Chair stresses,
"It is not enough to ask whether government is providing good service. Instead,
we must ask ourselves whether government is advancing democracy by serving as
a catalyst to bring resources, people, and plans together to accomplish our
Local jurisdictions need communication tools for a variety of situations and
purposes. Local governments continually need communication tools they can use
to keep citizens informed about community issues and services and also for better
communicating what local government is and what it does for its citizens. Other
communication approaches are needed to obtain feedback and ideas about citizen
concerns and needs. Perhaps most important of all are the approaches that engage
citizens in decisions about community direction and improvement.
Cities and counties should consciously develop comprehensive programs for involving
citizens and "telling the story" about what local government offers. The best
programs will include staff training (for staff from all departments) to assure
that daily contacts with citizens are positive. Local governments may further
benefit from creating an office or team to ensure a coordinated effort. Local
governments can and should make use of techniques from the marketing world but
must focus on delivering an honest message. Efforts to manipulate or co-opt
citizen support, without addressing priority citizen needs, will only increase
distrust in government.
This section offers examples of effective communications/involvement approaches
tailored for different communications needs. For more information on these approaches
and for other examples, please view MRSC's "Effective Citizen Communication
and Involvement page at http://www.mrsc.org.
Getting the Word Out
Our communities are increasingly made up of diverse groups with diverse interests
and different ways of obtaining information. The most effective community involvement
programs use a combination of approaches to reach a cross section of citizens.
A rapidly changing world and emerging technology offer new opportunities for
quick and cost-effective ways to get out information. Busy schedules mean that
citizens will appreciate convenient, comfortable, and quick ways to stay informed
about government services and community issues. Citizens may also enjoy combining
the responsibility of staying informed with the opportunity for social interaction
and even a little fun! Local governments should not forget to keep citizens
aware of accomplishments as well as what's going on.
A particularly fine example is Spokane County's highly innovative approach
for involving citizens in its comprehensive planning process. "Meeting in a
Box" is a self-guided workshop that contains everything needed for individuals,
service organizations, or neighborhood groups to host a workshop in a comfortable
setting, such as a home. The box contains an instruction manual, a ten-minute
video, brochures, maps, an opinion survey, and a newsletter on growth management.
Any county resident could reserve a "box" and host a workshop. The opportunity
for a more informal meeting environment appealed to a wider range of the public
than past approaches. Over 2500 people participated in 100 such meetings on
a very modest budget. Other communities have made effective use of open houses,
block parties, speakers' bureaus, Web pages (for adults and kids), e-mail notification,
cable TV, newsletters, citizen academies, staff training, and other approaches
for getting the word out.
Listening to Citizens
Local government officials are, with few exceptions, committed to serving citizens'
interests and providing high-quality, efficient government services. Yet there
is much evidence that citizens do not feel they are being heard or that government
is addressing their priority needs. A rapidly changing world, coupled with growing
and diversifying communities, means that traditional approaches for gathering
feedback may be less effective today. Formal public hearings have their place,
but they can be intimidating. Such hearings may not be the best way to encourage
comment from a wide cross section of community residents and may not fit into
citizens' busy schedules. Local governments are trying new approaches to make
it easier for citizens to express their opinions and for local officials to
understand citizen needs. Opportunities for face-to-face exchanges will facilitate
understanding and a balancing of diverse interests. Scheduling convenient times
and providing comfortable settings will encourage participation.
Citizens must feel that their concerns have been acknowledged and will be considered,
rather than feel they have been manipulated or co-opted. Local officials initially
gain legitimacy because citizens of the community have elected them, believing
that they will represent their interests. Local officials maintain legitimacy
to the extent that they maintain open lines of communication, provide opportunities
for citizens with diverse viewpoints to be heard, work with the community to
develop a shared vision and goals, and then follow those goals.
Shelton, Olympia, Maple Valley, Snohomish County, Redmond, and other communities,
have used visual preference surveys to better gauge citizens' preferences about
the physical appearance of their communities. Rather than using words, the surveys
use pictures to help citizens visualize the choices they have, and to help decision-makers
understand what features their citizens value. Slides of contrasting development
scenarios and streetscapes also clarify difficult issues, such as whether residents
view higher density development favorably with different design treatments.
Other communities have improved citizen feedback by using forums, radio call-in
shows, walking town meetings, online comment opportunities, small group interviews,
citizen surveys, advisory committees, and other approaches.
Much of the focus of local government communications programs is appropriately
on keeping citizens informed and consulting with citizens about important issues
and needs. Local governments that encourage citizens to become directly involved
in community improvements and in setting community direction will reap further
rewards. Some jurisdictions are creating programs that encourage shared responsibility
for community problem solving and improvement. In addition to harnessing the
energy and ideas of citizen groups toward addressing community needs, such programs
ideally provide citizens with a sense of ownership in the community. Neighborhood
programs and volunteer opportunities are examples of programs that directly
involve citizens in community improvement.
A citizen should be viewed as a partner in government rather than a mere customer.
Some types of programs may be better served by the "barn-raising" approach where
citizens join together to accomplish what they cannot accomplish alone. In this
model, they share responsibility for shaping programs that best meet their needs,
balanced with the needs of the community as a whole. Citizen involvement is
essential for tasks such as developing a vision for the community's future,
choosing strategies for community development, meeting housing and transportation
needs, and participating in making communities safe.
Since 1994, Lacey has conducted a highly successful Work Involvement Now (WIN)
program. The program recruits youth groups, including scout troops, softball
teams, 4-H clubs, school clubs, and others, to tackle community improvement
projects. In addition to completing desired community improvements, the program
cultivates a sense of civic responsibility and community pride among the participating
youth. Communities have used visioning, neighborhood matching grants, and a
variety of volunteer programs to engage citizens in community improvement and
setting community direction.
Communicating about Government Spending
Tax and budget issues are often the focal points for citizen anger with government.
Various polls and initiative actions indicate that citizen anger over taxes
may not be primarily about the total amount of the taxes levied (although still
an issue). Rather, the main issue may be the feeling that tax dollars are wasted,
or are not being spent where citizens would like to see their money spent. Citizens
frequently express the feeling that they have little influence over how their
money is spent. Some voice their suspicions that special interests drive local
decisions. There is confusion over different levels of government and how the
tax dollar is split. There is a lack of understanding about the connection between
the tax dollars government collects and the services that it provides. Budget
documents are often lengthy and obtuse. More focused and understandable messages
about budget decisions and tax dollar spending are urgently needed.
Port Angeles used a very effective comparison to communicate the good deal
that citizens receive for their tax dollar. The following is a condensed version
of a table showing the monthly cost of city services (per homeowner) compared
with the cost of other potential private purchases, excerpted from a city newsletter:
Service Provided and Cost Per Month
Comparison and Cost
- Police services - 6.93
- Park and recreation - 4.09
- Fire and Medic One - 3.99
- Street services - 3.50
- General government - 2.61
- Planning and engineering - 1.45
- Finance - .64
- Debt service - 6.37
- Dinner for two - 25.00
- Disposable diapers - 24.99
- Two movie ticket, popcorn, drinks - 21.00
- Twelve pack beer - 7.28
- Bottle of wine - 8.00
- Paper towels (six rolls) 4.49
- Video rental - 2.99
- Latte - 1.75
Other communities have effectively used budgets-in-brief, citizen capital improvements
committees, and tax mailers to help citizens understand and provide informed
comment on complex budget issues.
Communicating about the Services and Value that Government Provides
Most local governments have been far too modest about the day-to-day services
they provide. Local governments generally need to expand efforts to get the
word out about the variety of services available to citizens, and to do so in
language that emphasizes how these services respond to their citizens' needs
and interests. Much of the contact that citizens have with their government
is related to the services provided. Government's responsiveness to citizens'
service needs will greatly shape citizens' perception about the value of their
Many publications on reinventing government advocate that government agencies
place increased emphasis on responsive customer service. In the delivery of
services, such as water service or garbage pick-up, government appropriately
acts in the role of a business providing services to a customer. For these transactions,
citizens should expect courtesy, promptness, efficiency, and quality. A citizen's
view of government is shaped by interactions with individuals in government.
However, unlike many private sector transactions, government transactions, such
as the issuance of a development permit, can affect many people other than just
the "customer." The "business" of government must be conducted in a way that
considers the broader interests of the community.
Walla Walla alerts citizens to an extensive offering of public services with
its appropriately titled guide, "City Hall: What's in it for You?" Shoreline
provides citizens with a similar guide, "Owner's Manual: Your Guide to Services
and Citizen Participation in the City of Shoreline." Other cities offer online
citizen assistance and service request forms, ombudsman, information centers,
and other approaches to heighten citizen awareness and positive experience concerning
Many Washington communities have taken innovative and evolutionary steps toward
improving citizen awareness, better gauging citizen preferences and needs, and
engaging citizens in new ways. These efforts will increase recognition of the
mutual responsibility we share to make government work for us all. When citizens
feel themselves to be partners in government, they will have restored confidence
in their government. Local government can and should serve as a catalyst to
bring resources, people, and plans together to accomplish common goals.
Examples of such efforts are available on MRSC's Web site at www.mrsc.org/.
Additional examples are presented in the MRSC publication, "Governments are
from Saturn.Citizens are from Jupiter: Strategies for REconnecting Citizens
and Government," available on MRSC's Web site or in published form. These examples
offer the opportunity to learn from one another about new ways to make local
government work for all of us in a new age.