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Rebuilding Trust in the Government

by Megan Rose Donovan

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

After two full years of largely ineffectual work, the 112th Congress finally ended its unproductive streak with the close of 2012. One grand question for the new Congress is how to help the exhausted American public regain confidence in leadership when they have seen leaders essentially plug their ears and yell, “I can’t hear you.”

The public's trust in government has long been eroding. A healthy democracy requires the participation of the public in decision making. Unfortunately, such participation becomes difficult, if not poisonous, when there is not a foundation of trust between those making policy and those affected by it.

Provided they are interested in maintaining a healthy democracy, how can our nation's leaders mend the minds and hearts of the public so their trust in the government can be rebuilt?

We believe many of our nation's leaders genuinely want to do what’s best for the country. But consistent set-backs erode their optimism and motivation. Wary of pitfalls, politicians have only been moved to inaction. We understand why they may be unmotivated, but there are many practical actions they can take to help rebuild the public's trust and get this country back on track when it comes to solving our nation's problems.

Practice Leadership Skills that Promote Trust

In "Failure Is Not an Option," recent Public Agenda research into unexpectedly high-achieving schools, we saw school leaders working with teachers, parents and students to transform the experience of students. Can our nation's leaders learn from others who've moved past conflict and solved problems in challenging situations?

The school leaders we interviewed shared certain characteristics, including persistence, consistency, accountability and heart. Their tenacity inspired colleagues and students to collaborate and connect with others around them, which led to improved instructional practices, communication and autonomy.
These practices and qualities are characteristic of all great leadership. In a recent Forbes piece citing the study, the director of the Drucker Institute notes that "the analysis has something to teach all of us, no matter what kind of organization we work in."

If these attributes of leaders from high-achieving, high-poverty schools were on a scorecard, how many would our legislators have? Or, rather, which would they not have? Our nation's leaders would be wise to heed the practices and qualities prescribed in "Failure Is Not an Option" and make a concerted effort to practice sound leadership qualities, like promoting teamwork and collaboration, leading by example, building and maintaining a culture of high expectations and holding colleagues accountable.

Identify and Respond to the Expectations of the Public

Our policymakers need to understand and acknowledge potential pitfalls of their communications efforts. One of the biggest pitfalls is assuming they know what the public needs and wants. The expectations of the public may be vastly different from what leaders assume. Policymakers need to listen, be sensitive and respond to these expectations.

For instance, those in power and the public perceive the use and value of data and statistics differently. In general leaders presuppose that data and other measures of responsibility reassure the public. The public certainly needs information to best make decisions, but they need context for this information. Leaders should also take care to not overwhelm the public with information, as this can be off putting.

Trust the Public and Engage Them in Solutions-Oriented Discussion

Knowing what concerns citizens is a starting point for closing the gap between the public's expectations and the policies that leaders create. Engaging them on solutions is another great leap – but it can be done.

Leaders at times are reluctant to engage the public in problem solving. They may doubt that the public has the knowledge or interest to collaborate thoughtfully on solutions. We have found that, under the right conditions and with the right guidance and resources, the public is surprisingly adept at grappling with the tough tradeoffs that have to be made in order to often divisive tough national problems.

Leaders also worry that the public will grow resentful if the policy they endorse is not the policy that "wins." Most often this is not the case, For example, in focus groups with members of the general public conducted for our 2010 report "Don’t Count Us Out," many respondents did recognize the distinction between “getting your way” and “being heard or listened to,” the latter of which is their major concern.

An example of this attitude can be seen in New York's first participatory budgeting process, where over 6,000 individuals, half of whom had never before been involved in community engagement, decided which projects would receive discretionary budget funds. One participant, who advocated over six months for funding to clean up his neighborhood's basketball courts, said, "Even though my project didn't win, I felt my voice was heard."

There Is No Time Like the Present

If not now, when? 2013 is the year. We can have a high-achieving Congress, one that sets standards, works through rough patches, partisanship and refuses to dillydally. By building leadership skills back up, listening and responding to the needs of the public, and encouraging problem-solving dialogue between the electorate and the elected, a new foundation of trust can be laid for the 113th Congress. Only after this trust is restored will we move from arguments to conversation and conversation to solutions.



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The country's budget

Submitted by: Jan on Thursday, April 11th, 2013

We could save a bit of money if we didn't pay our retired government employees the same after they retire. It is insane that anyone needs over 4000,000.00 a year to live on. We as normal people do not get that. Now they want to mess with Social Security and Vets pay and we get so little. I get about 860.00 a month and I have worked all my life, sometimes 3 jobs at a time. Lets face it, our government does not want to help the men and women who truly make this country the land of the brave and home of the free. It makes me sick.