Trust Issues: Why Government Is Failing
For the fourth month in a row, government was ranked as the biggest problem facing the United States according to a Gallup poll. Our relatively young country has trust issues with government. The reasons are numerous – a politically polarized country, government surveillance, healthcare, national security.
Recent surveys indicate that trust issues exist between all levels of government and the people. Local government ranks the most trustworthy when compared to the state and federal government but the bar has been set low.
I, frankly, don’t blame citizens who have their doubts about government. While there are examples of government done right, the majority of government entities remain resistant to change, afraid of technology, and ill-prepared for the ongoing turnover of its workforce. On top of that, government fails at making itself interesting and relevant despite having a major role in the every day life of all citizens. (More on this later.)
A lack of a trust between the people and government has produced an increase of citizens who shield information the government. A Pew Research poll found that 30% of all adults have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. This comes in the post-Snowden era where people have either strengthened their distrust in government or started to develop a mistrust of government.
Elon University went in-depth with “Do NC Residents Trust Government?” Regardless of whether you live in North Carolina, these survey results are relevant to your everyday work. One of the key findings showed that “53% trust their local government, 32% state, 22% federal.” The poll also provides data on hot topics such as body cameras and sunshine laws.
Nationally, a recent Gallup poll showed the Americans believe the biggest problem facing the U.S is the government.
“Americans continue to name the government (18%) as the most important U.S. problem, a distinction it has had for the past four months. Americans’ mentions of the economy as the top problem (11%) dropped this month, leaving it tied with jobs (10%) for second place.”
On the bright side, we have a lot of room for improvement but not as much as our counterparts in state and federal government. If you doubt, the results above, here’s some more evidence – In government we don’t trust — and that’s just the beginning, Opinion: Trust in government slipping away and Poll: NY’ers trust their local government more than state or feds.
My skepticism about whether government can improve its image was deepened on a recent trip to Washington, DC. During the visit, I toured the U.S Capitol with a couple of Tigard High School students. Neither of the students had expressed an interest in a government career. I figured this would be an opportunity to showcase the greatness of government.
More than 100 people from a seemingly wide range of background joined us on the tour. Our experience started with a 13-minute orientation video. I was encouraged. A large group of citizens ready to learn about government through a video that I hoped was produced by some of the best in the industry.
What happened next was surprising and disappointing. No more than 10 seconds into the video, my dreams of a government career for the two students vanished. The video was showcasing why our citizenry isn’t interested in government. The intro music was cheesy and depressing. The narrator was overly dramatic. The film footage was lackluster. And sadly, the audience was lost.
When the video ended and the lights came back on, one of the Capitol staffers greeted us with “alright now, everyone wake up.” The staffer was not exaggerating. Many in the audience were asleep.
What a wasted opportunity to engage a captive audience. If a candidate for state legislature can afford a slick, interesting video, our Federal government should be able to afford the time and resources needed to engage the citizenry. Unfortunately, in a 13-minute span, another large group came away unimpressed with what the government has to offer.
On the Other Hand
During my five-day visit to DC, the two high school students and I toured the White House, Lincoln Memorial, and other popular tourist spots. Each of the sites was a learning experience but where did we learn the most…..the Newseum.
The Newseum is a six-story museum highlighted by exhibits on 9/11, Berlin Wall, and the FBI. More recent events, such as Ferguson and Boston Marathon incident, were highlighted through items such as a reporter’s journal, newly-released pictures, and first-hand accounts of the events. The high school students marveled at the interactive displays, the tear-jerking video on 9/11, and the impact of the media on our nation’s country.
Every local government professional should be required to visit the Newseum to gain a better appreciation of the media and why our relationship with them is vital. Our visit to the Newseum showed the importance of telling your story and it didn’t involved a lackluster 13-minute video.
Why don’t people like the government? Because we give them no reason. We think people should like us but we don’t tell them why. Instead, we know that our citizens must pay taxes, need public safety services, and want their trash collected. For the most part, they can’t go anywhere else.
Government needs to take advantage of opportunities when we have a captive audience to tell our story. We need Newseum-like communications. Our changing demographic has a different mode of learning. We want interesting visuals, we want to be told an interesting story, and we want to have a reason to believe in government.
Our job as government practitioners is to think daily about how we can tell the government story. . We are surrounded by opportunities where we have a captive audience — a utility bill, a monthly newsletter, social media, community festivals. We need less robot and more human in our community interactions.
For additional reading on how government is viewed, check our 360 Review series which asks key stakeholders to review government’s performance.