Rebuilding Trust in Democracy

By Will Hampton

City of Round Rock, Texas

It's up to you to save democracy, he said.

Gulp, I replied.

OK, that's not exactly what Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole said in his opening keynote at last year's 3CMA Annual Conference. But his point – communicators like you and I are key to rebuilding trust in democracy – really resonated with me. I've experienced first-hand the evolution of a citizen's attitude from cynical to skeptical to wow-those-guys-really-are-telling-me-the-truth and listening to what I have to say.

I've been thinking about Cole's speech a lot lately. In the wake of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, it feels like we are more divided than ever as a citizenry. Distrust (disgust?) of our federal government institutions appears to be at an all-time high.

As the political discourse at the national and state levels becomes more polarizing, more us vs. them, more downright nasty and demeaning, we're starting to see that attitude trickle down to local government. Fear not, dear readers. There's hope.

The challenge for communicators in government, Cole said, is to renew the idea that we're all in this together. We need to lift people up so we can accomplish the incredibly difficult task of having regular folks run our government.

Cole said government shouldn't be like a vending machine where folks put money in, push a button and something gets delivered but it's all a mystery about how that happens. They can't really see how the mechanisms work inside that big, dark box. And if they don't get what they want? They bang on the side of it in frustration (think Citizen Communications at a Council or Commission meeting.) This is where we come in. It's our job to explain how the local government machine functions, to shine a light on the people and programs that make our communities safe and livable.

That kind of communication can be really creative and even moving, but it shouldn't be our sole focus. Frankly, I've seen enough tweets of law enforcement K9s to last me a lifetime. (And don't even get me started on lip-synch videos.) I think we're at our most valuable as local government communicators when we're facilitating meaningful engagement with citizens on controversial projects. Want to earn the respect of your stakeholders? Then start conversations with them early in the decision-making process, months or even years before a City Council vote on a project that may cause them some pain (more traffic, noise, etc.). Want to build credibility? Be blunt about the negative impacts of a proposal and quick to let constituents know what you're doing to mitigate those pain points.

There's a communications template we've been following for nearly two decades in Round Rock that has served us exceedingly well on controversial projects large and small. It's earned praise (sometimes grudging) from our citizens. It's from Hans and Annemarie Bleiker of the Institute for Participatory Management and Planning. Longtime 3CMAers may recall the keynote Hans gave at the 2011 Annual Conference in Austin. No one knows citizen participation better than the Bleikers.

The Bleiker Life-Preserver

Whatever you say, write or do, make sure that your potentially affected interests all understand the following four points:

  1. There really is a serious problem, one that just has to be addressed.
  2. You are the right entity to address it … In fact, given your mission it would be irresponsible if you did not address it.
  3. The approach you are using – for addressing the problem at hand – is reasonable … sensible … responsible.
  4. You are listening; you do care. If, what you're proposing, is going to hurt some interests, it's not because you don't care; it's not because you're not listening.

It's a relatively simple approach, but it's not easy. It requires political courage to tell folks "Yes, In Your Backyard." But now is not the time for the faint of heart in our business. Just scan the comments of a Facebook post about a potential tax increase or watch on CNN as a U.S. Senator is cornered in an elevator and spoken to like a child: Look me in the eye when I'm talking to you!

Voices of reason and responsibility are more important than ever. There's nothing I can do to moderate the President's Twitter account, but I can make a difference in my City by setting a tone that's respectful, even welcoming of folks who may be opposed to what we're doing.

Rick Cole was spot on – our role as communicators matters, big time. Do what you can in your corner of the republic to restore faith in our democratic systems, imperfect though they may be. Collectively, we can make a difference.