Government Employees Need to Communicate and Educate
All levels of governments across the United States are subject to political pressures. There may be pressure to keep taxes low or to do more with less. The pressure may come from our ever-changing boards and councils, or even the compliance requirements on grants. Sometimes the pressure is compounded by a lack of understanding.
As we think about the best ways to handle these pressures, one of the most important — and least discussed — solutions is to spend time communicating and educating others about our jobs. Let’s face it: the general public and even some of our coworkers probably do not truly know what our jobs entail — and more importantly, how our jobs impact their lives every day. So, one of the most important parts of any local government employee’s job is to educate.
Give the public information
How do we go about educating the largest group that all government employees ultimately need to answer to? As we meet citizens, whether it’s while getting coffee or attending an annual fair or when they visit City Hall, we need to take the time to speak with them. Answer their questions openly and honestly. The more kinds of information we share with the public, the better:
- Make research, reports, and other information easily available. Many cities are starting to make raw data available online free of charge. Chicago has been doing this since 2012, and many more are trying to find ways of providing this information cost effectively. Making the data available in a raw form online allows residents to develop apps and other websites on their own that could be easier to use than a city’s own website. In Chicago, easy-to-use apps and websites track snow plows, trains, crime rates, and other statistics. Allowing access to data allows residents who may not want to either work for a local government or run for office to help out in their own unique way.
- Share knowledge regarding how governments function, how property taxes work, or how the tax levy is set. Some cities have created academies in which participants attend a series of classes focused on different aspects of local government, whether it is how waste water is treated, how the fire department operates, or what happens when you call 911 to get emergency services dispatched. These academies are designed to give residents an in-depth look at the operations of a city. Counties have developed similar programs to help citizens better understand government, so they can take a more active role in it.
- Make personal appeals and formally invite the public to attend truth-in-taxation meetings, budget workshops, or committee meetings.
- To educate the public on what you do and what your department does, involve them in your department’s open house or a special event. Open houses can be formal or informal. I used to help my city each year with the Halloween open house. It gave hundreds of families the opportunity to come to the police department, see a squad car with its lights on up close, meet McGruff the Crime Dog, and get some candy. An open house works well when it coincides with another event. For instance, if a new city park is opening up, an open house could help educate the public on what the parks and recreation department does, or showcase the planning, engineering, and construction that goes into creating a new park.
Are we really knowledgeable about what our own coworkers do every day? Take the time to get to know your coworkers at a new level. If you work across department lines, rather than just handing off an invoice or a purchase order, ask that person what happens with it next. Demonstrate some professional curiosity. Learning more about their roles will not only make you a better coworker, but it will also help you educate the public and board members when it’s needed.
Now, when you start asking questions about what happens to the invoice or purchase order you just handed off to another department, your efforts may be met with a lot of skepticism and possibly distrust. But take some baby steps, interject small questions into everyday conversations. A less suspicious approach might be to attend departmental open houses that are designed to educate the public — but there’s no reason that you as a co-worker can’t also attend to get to know those departments better.
Interaction as opportunity
Whenever possible, we need to view our interactions with the public or coworkers as an opportunity to have a conversation about how our local governmental units function. When people have a greater appreciation for what it takes to keep the streetlights on and our neighborhoods safe, when they understand how the tax levy process works or why our home values fluctuate, they may be more engaged in our local governments and less critical of them. And with informed stakeholders, we are better positioned to implement the programs we believe can make our communities prosper.