Views on Government Falter

Local governments could help their public reputation if they borrowed a page from the late Mildred Schwab's playbook – carry out a sustained outreach effort in the communityThere are a lot of fists flying out there during election season and all levels of government seem to be getting their noses bloodied as a result. This fall would be a good time for government agencies to get back to basics and make a robust effort to reach out to citizens in all the many forms that takes.

Why? During the past several years government agencies have fallen in esteem, especially federal agencies.

“Just a third of Americans have a favorable opinion of the federal government, the lowest positive rating in 15 years,” says the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press based on an April survey. Although held in higher public regard by comparison, state and local government have experienced a fall from favor during the recent bad economic years.

What voters say

“While the balance of opinion toward state governments is favorable, majorities say their state government is not careful with people’s money (56 percent), is too divided along party lines (53 percent) and is generally inefficient (51 percent),” the Pew report says.

“But much larger percentages fault the federal government’s performance in those areas. Moreover, while more say their state government is mostly honest rather than mostly corrupt (by 49 percent to 37 percent), a majority (54 percent) says the federal government is mostly corrupt.

Ouch. How do you dig yourself out of that hole?

Some outreach steps

A fall offensive on the part of public affairs managers is worth considering. Needed is a mix of traditional and new tactics. Your program might center on a “No agenda community assessment.”

Governments often wait until there is a big project or major new policy before touching base with the general public or significant interest groups. But a quiet time during the first few months after the general election is a good time to gather public opinion when no particular agenda is being pushed. Possible tactics in an “active listening” campaign may include:

Polling: Now is a good time to establish or update a baseline of community attitudes.

Meet and greets: Send the agency’s top officials out to community meetings, civic club luncheons, neighborhood association meetings and significant gatherings of interest groups.

The rubber chicken circuit: Put together a community report update, get on the phone and start booking appearances before established community organizations such as chambers and business associations. It is hard work, but well worth the effort.

Online advisory groups: Try something different. CFM helps its clients create, manage and sustain an ongoing, online conversation with stakeholders. Known as panel-based research, a group of demographically diverse volunteers may be asked a series of questions over the period of a year or two. The conversation starts when results from these surveys are shared, and explained, to the panel members as well as the broader general public.

Better yet, keep an active profile by carrying out a sustained outreach effort. As a former colleague — Mildred Schwab, legendary Portland City Commissioner — once told me (and this is a paraphrase): “I go out and meet with groups all the time. That way I don’t have to meet with them during election year because they already know me.”

And that’s why Schwab became one of the most popular members of Portland city council during the 1970s and 1980s, a time when city hall wasn’t always viewed favorably by the public.