Value for the Money: What governments need to tell the tax-paying public

Most of us paid our taxes this week, and didn’t grumble too much. But taxpayers may not have had a great sense of satisfaction about it either.

By Eric Rabe, Fels Senior Advisor

A Pew study last year found that most Americans are “frustrated” with the federal government — a number that has been above 50 percent for each of the nine times that the poll has asked the question except for one. 
Many other levels of government and government agencies may well suffer the same.

Yet, most of us would probably agree that our governments do vital work that helps most of us every day. So why don’t we like paying for it?

After all, when customers walk out of an Apple store with a new $2000 computer, most aren’t complaining about the cost. Some are in fact tireless advocates for the company that just emptied their wallet.

For one thing, customers of popular businesses have a choice when it comes to spending money, and, of course, taxpayers do not. That sense of not having an option can and does lead to frustration.

But a more important difference may be that most major companies put enormous effort into making sure customers see the value they are getting for their money.

Companies typically have substantial budgets for communications to improve the image of their brands in the minds of customers and potential customers.It is no accident that millions have scooped up iPads absolutely convinced that the device gives them a better value than any other option.

Southwest Airlines never lets the chance go by to tell customers that “bags fly free,” a clear message that Southwest offers a value that other airlines don’t.

How much effort does the typical local, state or other government put into making sure customers – the taxpayers – are convinced there are getting good value for their money? Perhaps not enough.

The answer is probably not a dry speech to the Chamber of Commerce or an election rally full of broad generalities about the good things the candidate can do or has done in office.

Governments must build support among taxpayers much as corporate brands are nurtured by the best in business. This is an every day proposition. There are no quick fixes.

Governments and government agencies need specific programs to clearly and fairly articulate the value they are delivering. These might include tying budget items to expected and delivered results, demonstrating efficiencies and clearly explaining in everyday language how spending decisions are made. Regular report cards giving both good and bad grades would be a bold but effective measure.

Social media offer a tool for engaging the public in such discussions. Through candid discussion, leaders can bring suspicions and criticisms out into the open and win over new supporters for government decisions and programs. But such a commutations effort cannot be an afterthought. Leaders need to take seriously the responsibility and the opportunity to establish positive taxpayer support and work to earn it every day.

Keep an eye out for our soon-to-be published social media handbook, The Rise of Social Government. This guide is geared towrad public administrators who’d like to learn to use social media effectively in their constituent outreach efforts.

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