My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #13,
September 2, 2001


My town just got a twenty million dollar grant from the state of Iowa for its planned riverfront development. The grant is dependent on contributions promised by the city, by local benefactors, and the county government, which pledged to issue five million dollars in bonds for it.

Talk about mixed feelings! Getting twenty mil is pretty exciting, even if many of us didn't know much about the riverfront project. But what was this about a bond issue? This was the first many of us had heard about it. Had we somehow voted for a bond issue without noticing?

Well, no, we hadn't, actually. If the figure is small enough, the county government apparently can issue bonds without a vote. (Somehow, we hadn't known that either.) But, hey, it's only $5 for every $100,000 of assessed valuation. No big deal, nobody's going to be forced out of their homes. Besides, without that bond issue, we don't get the state money, so we should all just go along with the deal, accept the wisdom of our leaders.

Granted, once the city government finally got around to showing us what the riverfront would look like, it did seem like a good investment that would make our town even prettier. If anybody had asked us first, we probably would have voted for the bond issue. But since nobody did ask us, we got ticked off. A local bar owner started a petition drive demanding that county residents have a chance to vote on the bond issue. He had 'til the end of August to come up with 7,000 sugnatures to force a vote, so he and a bunch of other citizens scurried around like crazy.

This made our elected leaders nervous. They called in the state attorney general, who, five days before the petition deadline, ruled that the wording of the petition was misleading and the petitions would have to be thrown out. There was such a strong smell of fish about this that people got even madder. Twelve thousand people signed those petitions in five days flat.

So, we may get to vote, and the vote may go against the project, which means we'd lose the state money. We may not get our pretty new riverfront, which will be a loss. But if so, perhaps our officials will at least learn something useful. It isn't enough for them to have good ideas, or even wonderful ideas; they have to explain those ideas to voters. Better yet, they have to give voters a chance to ask questions and offer their own ideas. And if the voters don't agree with government plans, officials for sure had better not appear to be using state power in an underhanded manner to thwart them.

Joan Didion once said "half the nation's citizens have only a vassal relationship to the government under which they live," which is surely a dramatic overstatement. But it is true that Americans don't give government the benefit of the doubt anymore; only about 40% of us say we trust government most of the time.

That means governments HAVE to do a whole lot better job communicating, because it only takes one conflict, one boneheaded PR move, one stunning piece of mismanagement, to infuriate voters or send them in search of non-government solutions.

Take the drought-stricken farmers in Klamath Valley, Oregon, enraged because the government wouldn't divert federal water into irrigation canals for fear of endangering two species of fish. From the farmers' point of view, the EPA was announcing that fish were more important than people. The EPA decision may have been correct and entirely defensible, since one of the endangered fish, the salmon, was just as important to the state's economy as the farmers were. The problem was, the EPA didn't defend it well; the decision was hopelessly under-explained. Even when the agency backed down and gave them the water, it gained nothing on the deal; it had permanently lost the good will of those citizens.

Or take the current willingness of people to consider altering social security, because it doesn't give as good a return as other pensions, like a 401K investment account. Not once has anybody from social security bothered to explain that it's not just a pension, that there are several key differences:

Comparing social security returns to 401Ks is, then, misleading, if not deliberately dishonest (and remember, brokers will rake in billions if they can get their hands on all that lovely social security money). So why won't the government explain itself and defend a well-run program that has rescued millions of seniors from abject poverty?

I hate to actually encourage government to market itself, since we've suffered under years of self-serving spin from politicians. But you know what's even more annoying than government tooting its own horn? A government that thinks its ideas are so transparently good that they don't need to be marketed or even defended, which is nonsense. It infuriates me that when the local school board wants a bond issue for school improvement, there is always a vigorous campaign against it, and VOTE NO signs spring up on yards throughout the community, but there's virtually never a campaign FOR it. The school board doesn't even seem to enlist a Friends of the Public Schools committee to make speeches, knock on doors, and send out flyers. An agency that needs 55% of the vote, against an organized campaign of tax resistance, can't even convince people to post yard signs saying VOTE YES.

Winning hearts and minds and building consensus are supposed to be what politics is all about. A politician's job, at the very least, is saying, "Here's a problem and this is how we think we can solve it." Even better, it's enlisting voters in the solution by saying: "Here's a problem; how do YOU think we should solve it?" Best of all, though, it's inviting voters to set the agenda in the first place: "What are the problems that YOU'd like your government to solve?" The best marketing is getting voters to feel that a solution is their own; then they will do the selling themselves by word of mouth.

What's at stake for government is not just specific projects or programs, it's public faith in the very concept of government. When elected officials welcome voters' opinions, answer their questions, even pick up on some of their ideas and do something with them, they help to reweave the fabric of our tattered trust.

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