In early February, I shared my alarm over the public’s apparent lack of trust in their public servants. As reported in a U.S. Conference of Mayors/Zogby Analytics national survey, people trusted small business owners and young persons fresh out of grad school, in that order, to guide them through the challenges of the 21st Century. Mayors came in third. Public servants and public agencies were not offered as options.
I wanted to follow up on this. Rather than call on a focus group of “the public,” I interviewed three stakeholders by email: a small business owner (SB); a young public servant with a new master’s degree (NG); and a seasoned public servant with previous private sector experience (SS). Their responses are paraphrased below.
What is your opinion of the quality of public service you’ve received so far (from any level of government)?
SB: …I am pleased with the final outcome of parking meters…I am not pleased with the lack of foresight the City displayed and continues to display with lack of parking for new downtown lofts/apartment complexes… not updating the antiquated sewage infrastructure…BEFORE…apartments are built seems to be, not only a disaster…but WORSE.
NG: I am very pleased with the level of service I get from local government…I am pretty pleased with state and federal government services…The real issue is not the services … [but] with elected officials and the lack of professionalism and data/research-driven decision making.
SS: When you haven’t worked in government before, you feel the processes are slow,,,Now…I absolutely know those processes are in place for transparency and to make sure we are making the best use of citizens’ tax dollars… most people working for the government… are doing it because they believe in public service…
I see some connections between the business owner’s common sense, practical approach and the new grad’s wish for more fact-based decisions in a political environment. The seasoned servant reflects experience, acceptance and, perhaps, more patience.
What qualities should a public servant have to serve citizens well?
SB: … public servants need to be “incorruptible” and do what is really right rather than what is politically correct. Common sense, wisdom and thrift-worthiness would also be high on my list.
NG: Level-headed, calm, unintimidating, professionally competent in their field, willingness to listen and communicate, but still have the courage to stand by recommendations that stem for their expertise and work.
SS: Public servants should have patience and “thick skin”…The public servant needs to understand that it isn’t personal, but that can be hard to do…And as mentioned in the first question, because governmental processes can be slow, patience is a virtue in trying to maneuver through those processes.
Again, the business owner and the new grad coincide in their ideals of purity, bravery and competence. The seasoned servant, again, reflects on patience and endurance over the long haul.
Why do you think people have a high level of trust in small business owners and new graduates?
SB: …people have a high level of trust in small business owners because they are (typically) not large enough to be corrupt; they have to answer to the “bottom line” every day to stay in business. If they do have a high level of trust in new graduates, it would be much for the same reason; that they are not entrenched in any system of corruption yet (save for the possible inherent bias in their educations).
NG: When you walk into a big box store you don’t do business with the manager…when you walk into a small business you are often talking to the owner…Small businesses just feel more comfortable…and usually the employees have a very deep and unbiased knowledge of their products and services. I am guessing folks think that new grads possess the knowledge to do good, but lack the bad influences from working in the system for a long time.
SS: …My first thought is that small business owners NEED to be trusted…A lot of small businesses can’t afford advertising/marketing, so they have to be solid and keep the public’s trust in order for the “word of mouth” advertising… to happen. New graduates also need that… advertising as they are trying to move forward in their respective careers.
The small business owner and the new grad are connecting on their thoughts of corruption due to size and bad influences caused by long tenure. The seasoned servant raises an interesting question: if you’re a government, and you have no significant competitors, is “trust” a moot question?
What is the most important public issue we face as a nation? Who do you trust to address this issue?
SB: The most important public issue we face as a nation is our health. I trust enlightened, incorruptible, free-thinking individuals to address this issue.
NG: … poverty, the wealth gap, over-consumption…these are symptoms that rise as a result of our ever increasing monetization of the goods and services coupled with a capitalistic system that relies on interest…I think there is plenty of wealth, plenty of water, plenty of energy for everyone to live the good life… I do not trust any particular person or groups of people to address this…better to put your trust in… the scientific method…The process itself is unbiased, incorruptible…
SS: I think there is more than one public issue the nation faces, but the first thing that needs to happen…is to renew the public’s trust in government at all levels… through better communication, better follow through on promises, more transparency or a combination …Until the public has renewed trust, it will be hard to face and address any other issues.
The business owner trusts incorruptible individuals to address our general health. The new grad trusts the incorruptible scientific method to combat the negative effects of capitalism. The seasoned servant sees trust as the key to tackling any issue.
Do these comments reflect the critical divide between the public and those who serve them? How does corruption differ from compromise? Is compromise more acceptable if you trust the intentions of the actors? Thankfully, most of us find ways to work together every day, honoring (I hope) our differences and celebrating our success.
Toni Messina is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.
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