Symposium Explores Better Communication Strategies for Promoting Local Government
Have you ever had this experience? You are at a gathering chatting with people you don’t know. You ask them what they do; they reciprocate. You explain that you are involved in local government. They grimace or make a disparaging remark or joke about government.
If this has happened to you, you’re not alone. Why do people have such negative perceptions of government? More importantly, what can you do about these perceptions?
This was the focus of the Institute for Local Government’s (ILG) recent annual symposium held Sept. 7 at the League’s 2006 annual conference in San Diego. ILG organized this symposium as part of its mission to connect local officials with practical information to help them serve their communities.
“How to Talk About Government” is the subject of ongoing research by the Demos Center for the Public Sector, in collaboration with the Council for Excellence in Government and FrameWorks Institute. The goal is to research public perceptions about government and identify strategies for:
• Effectively communicating the important role public agencies play in society; and
• Rebuilding support for the public sector.
At the symposium, researchers Susan Bales and Franklin Gilliam from the FrameWorks Institute presented the extensive public opinion research that is forming the basis for the project’s preliminary conclusions. Among those conclusions:
• The way we talk about government makes a difference in terms of eliciting positive or negative reactions from the public.
• Specific words and phrases can have an
impact. For example, even using the word “government” can elicit more negative, stereotypical reactions related to notions of partisan politics, special interests, waste, burdensome taxes and something that the public is not a part of. In contrast, using the term “public sector” did not trigger reactions that were as negative.
• People respond positively to certain core notions of what public agencies do; for example, protecting the public against physical or financial harm or serving as a vehicle for collective action to promote the common good or quality of life issues.
The researchers call this latter notion a “framing” concept. A key theory being tested in the research is whether the public responds more positively to “frames” linking the role that public agencies play and key values.
Another interesting dimension, according to the researchers, is the importance that the public places on civic participation and engagement. The survey research indicates most people believe in the power and importance of collective action to solve problems. Other interviews suggested that the concept of government as a community and consensus builder also resonates with the public, particularly the notion of government as a tool or instrument the public uses to get things done.
Finally, the research suggests that people respond positively to a notion of government being about “public structures” —both physical infrastructure and organizational systems that provide services to promote well-being and prosperity. Land use planning is an example of an organizational system.
The researchers note that these concepts, or frames, of government can replace perceptions of government that suggest distance from or even opposition to peoples’ lives and interests. There’s also a notion of reciprocity inherent in the concept: We take care of our public structures, and they in turn will take care of us.
A third speaker, Patrick Bresette of the Demos Center for the Public Sector, noted that there is no silver bullet in terms of turning around negative perceptions about government, but local officials are in a position to achieve incremental change. He provided concrete examples of how, when communicating with the public, it can be helpful to reframe the role that government plays and emphasize the benefits it seeks to achieve for the community. In such communications, he encouraged local officials to include:
• Information about the value or values that underlie a public agency’s involvement in the issue;
• The specific way that government con-tributes to the public’s protection or well-being; and
• The solution that the agency’s involvement is intended to create.
Symposium attendees were readily engaged in ideas and discussions on how to reframe the public sector’s work. A special workshop that followed allowed attendees to delve even deeper into the research’s implications for their own communities.
Local officials can learn more about the Demos research from the Public Works section of its website at www.demos.org. The presentations from the symposium and post-symposium session are online at www.ca-ilg.org; click on the “Symposium” button.