In this post, we continue to look at things that public officials sometimes do which erode trust. The following 5 behaviors round out our list of 10:
6. Presenting false choices: Presenting limited “either/or” choices– particularly when the “options” are overstated or when neither is of much interest to the public — while ignoring or limiting discussion of other options that are available, inevitably leads to an erosion of trust. This erosion is generally evidenced by citizens complaining of “poor leadership” or “lack of vision.” In our own home city in the recent past, voters were told that they had to approve new funds for improving sewer infrastructure downtown or “no new development could occur.” The funding issue did not pass. Development downtown continues. Leaders suggest it was all a misunderstanding due to “poor information”. The resulting decline in trust continues to reverberate through other issues.
7. Misleading statistics: I recently heard a local elected official quote an inflammatory statistic without any context and then declare “Now that’s reality!” Actually numbers devoid of context and without any explanation of how they were calculated (starting point, end points, methodology, exclusions, etc.) are pretty much meaningless. And most of the public knows that. The public continues to be interested though in information that is fairly presented as shown by the success of the Marquette Law Poll.
8. Saying one thing and doing another: This one needs no explanation. When the “action” also benefits groups that are perceived as monied special interests distrust becomes active cynicism.
9. Dismissing portions of the public: How many times have you heard a civic leader say something like this about a group that disagrees with one or more proposals on the table: “They’re just a small group”; they’re not well informed”; “they’re just against progress”, or even worse “they’re not the ones that matter”. None of this builds community. One doesn’t have to agree with a group to acknowledge their concerns and share other information, to sympathize with emotions, or to recognize their voices should be heard. There is always some level of the message being offered that can draw a response which demonstrates respect. Respect builds trust; disrespect erodes it.
10. Grandstanding: There are many ways in which officials pander to the interests of a particular group, generating distrust among others in the community. This includes championing options that are simply not feasible. One example would be encouraging the public to demand that a building site that is privately owned and being developed be instead used as a “public park” even though there are no public funds available for purchase, the owner has already contracted for sale, and the property is legally zoned for development. Other examples of “grandstanding” include dramatic gestures such as county officials ordering flags to be flown at half-mast to protest a court decision that they dislike, or an elected leader demanding to know why the public is not more “outraged” by the “disgusting” or “vile” action that a person or organization on the other side of the political spectrum has said or done. Most of the public correctly dismisses such grandstanding as “sound and fury, signifying nothing”; and refuses to engage.