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January/February 2012 · Volume 94 · Number 1

Feature

Dealing with Public Mistrust

by Dana K. Lee

The public’s mistrust of government has been on the rise since the late 1960s when Watergate and other widely publicized issues began to tarnish the image of public officials. Late last summer, in a CBS and New York Times survey, only 19 percent of Americans felt that they could “trust government in Washington to do what is right most or all of the time.”

Thanks to the around-the-clock news cycle and numerous social media tools, people are ever more exposed to government wrongdoing and are more capable of teaming up with one another in order to attack and protest government officials. The Tea Party movement and the tax watchdog groups at the local level are indicative of the frustration and anger toward all levels of government. Stalling or even shutting down government is becoming a viable strategy for the disenfranchised, be they Tea Party activists or Occupy Wall Street protesters in Manhattan.

This article examines how elected and appointed officials will need to adapt to frustration and mistrust as well as personal attacks and the use of freedom-of-information legislation as weapons against government.

Mistrust Grows and Consumes

One local resident decided that her local public officials were hiding something, including stealing and lying about it. She chose to bombard staff with e-mails demanding documents while also including pointed attacks on staff’s integrity in those e-mails. At one point it was estimated that her freedom-of-information requests would cost $15,000 to a local Maine town over the course of a year. Her methods discouraged and upset staff and crippled their productivity.

People who mistrust government and its employees will likely never be convinced to change their views. They see corruption and incompetence at all levels of government. They see it where it exists (via television reporting, 24 hours per day), where it doesn’t exist, and even where they believe it exists but just can’t prove it yet. Managers can be assumed guilty by simply being associated with government, and some people have already carried out imaginary trials and convictions.

The vast majority of public servants continue to be honest, conscientious, and hardworking people, yet uncivil discourse and mistrust are sharply on the rise. It is with this contentious environment in mind that I present strategies for coping with this type of resident.

Government employees need to recognize the thinking and belief systems of the true government haters. It hurts us, of course. We are only human, and it is in our nature as public servants to do our jobs to help society—not harm it, lie about it, steal from it, or get rich from it.

Other than espousing and living our code of ethics daily, and engaging citizens as much as possible, public servants can do precious little to reverse the growing mistrust of government. We are in unusual times given high property taxes, the rising number of foreclosures, and joblessness.

Strategies Matter

Elected and appointed public officials need to learn strategies for compartmentalizing, minimizing, eliminating, deflecting, or otherwise ignoring the negative attacks on their integrity, motives, and competence. There is no single strategy that will work in every case. Options are needed, depending on the nature, tone, and method of attack. Here are 10 options to consider.

1. You must depersonalize the attack. You are not the position. You are a human being, and you do a job the best you can. When you think of yourself as “the city” or “the county manager,” as if an equal sign exists between your name and that office, you truly risk being affected personally by the attacks. If it were not you, it would be some other person holding the office who would be under attack. It’s your ego that makes it personal, and it can tie you far too closely to the position.

2. Put critics in perspective in two ways:

First, always start by having your perspective in order. What are the big chunks of beautiful blue sky that make your life grand? The spouse, kids, grandchildren, time at camp, or playing sports with buddies? Also consider all the other great relationships, hobbies, and time spent smiling.

And then there are the majority of residents—80 percent? 90 percent?—who seem pleased or content with what you do. Taken together, that’s your big blue sky. Unfortunately, there are those few, tiny red holes of anger in that otherwise big beautiful sky. Does it make sense—does it work to your advantage—to focus on the tiny red holes?

Second, walk a mile in their shoes. Many of these people may have not had the upbringing, education, opportunities, and good fortune that you may have had. As noted earlier, the abused woman and the distressed widow had beliefs that, while hurtful and inappropriate, are nonetheless understandable. Isolate that thought and say to yourself, “I’m grateful that I am not them. They are very unhappy inside.”

3. Never feed the beast. Don’t focus on the person. Don’t allow the negative words and energy to poison the office. Don’t talk about him or her. Don’t even discuss the latest, nuttiest attack. Anger feeds anger, and negativity feeds negativity.

4. Don’t carry around a grudge at them. It’s not worth it. A friend told me that a grudge was “like you drinking poison and expecting them to die.” Let it go. They can carry the poison in their bellies.

5. Indifference is a nice strategy. “It takes 43 muscles to smile, 17 muscles to frown, and zero muscles to sit there with a dumb look on your face.” Some of my colleagues use this strategy extremely well. They have developed a strategy to view mistrust and attacks as a minor, natural occurrence, which will not be allowed to create negative feelings for them.

6. Wait it out. Don’t respond. Take time to cool down. What’s the worst that happens if you choose to simply not engage the attacker? Attackers want an immediate reaction. They want to get under your skin. Deny them that joy.

7. Learn lessons from their behavior. Act as though you are an outside observer of what they are trying to express or achieve. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned in their criticism, such as “I demand earlier posting of public meetings and agendas on the website!” It may be wise, transparent, and accountable to do that—so do it. You will not appease them in any meaningful way, but the other 80 percent—the silent majority—may appreciate it.

For the mistrustful, it would just be one item on a list of 100 top things they do not like about your office. They’ll be in the town office tomorrow or at the next council meeting with a new gripe.

8. Build a support network. Your colleagues are going through this as well. Find time to have lunch and share stories with them. Support each other. Reach out to a colleague getting attacked and offer an uplifting word.

9. Ask elected officials to issue policy or guidelines allowing staff to “shut down” these folks when they are getting aggressive, time-consuming, or too personal. Make sure that elected officials “have your back” if you need to take adult control over an increasingly intolerable situation. Determine your “rights” with your supervisors about how you may choose to speak and act when an angry citizen comes through the door to chide you. In any event, never get loud or aggressive. Remain calm, but firm.

10. Finally, be aware of a rational versus an instinctive reaction. In other words, will you offer a thoughtful response or jump to a fight-or-flight reaction? You must choose to stay at a rational level and stay above the fray. A friend once told me “to never get into a mudslinging contest unless you are ready to get covered in mud.” If they yell, you stay calm. They want to push your buttons; deny them that joy.

As a local government manager, you may not even be the staff member taking the most frequent and greatest abuse. Frontline staff will also need your support, your wisdom, and your strategies to mitigate the negative feelings that mistrustful people can cause.

A Few Black Eyes

These are difficult times to be a government employee, and it is important that an individual learns to cope with attacks on character and integrity. A person must remember that the attackers are relatively few in number and that, in general, residents of a community serve a reasonably content public. Remember too that, given the number of good, conscientious government employees, only a tiny fraction commit wrongdoing and cause a black eye for the rest.

It’s best to understand these attacks and maintain perspective. Also, it is best to depersonalize the attacks, and, to the maximum extent possible, leave the negativity behind. Stick by your ethics, smile, and do a good job.

Dana K. Lee is principal, Lee Facilitation Service, Mechanic Falls, Maine (danalee@leefacilitation.com). This article was prepared from an August 2011 presentation to the Maine City and County Management Association at Sebasco Resort, Phippsburg, Maine.