By Dr. John Crumpton
Last month I talked about the lack of citizen engagement in local government. One of the reasons I identified for this was trust in government — or a lack thereof. Along with fairness, these are the two attributes that people associate with good government. But studies and research show government isn’t trusted and fairness is one of the reasons why.
“Trust” and “fair” are two words probably in your company’s vision or mission statement. They are probably the foundation for treatment of employees in your organization. But say them in a political context, and you may get laughed out the door. It’s hard to explain why government officials aren’t trusted. However, like most issues, it only takes a few bad people to create a sweeping generalization.
Elected officials I’ve worked for have gotten backlash over both “trust” and “fair.” In Scotland County, the chairman of the board was not re-elected after an exchange with a citizen during a public hearing on a landfill. The citizen yelled, “this is not fair,” and the chairman responded with “the fair is in Raleigh in October, and for two weeks you can get all the fair you want. You won’t get any here tonight.”
Three years later in Lee County there was controversy over a new quarter cent sales tax and how the proceeds would be spent. Many in the public wanted the funds spent on education only, while some on the board wanted the funds for both education and economic development. The chairman said, “trust me, we will spend the money on education first.” He didn’t win re-election and actually lost in his primary.
You can’t ask to be trusted. Trust is earned when people are honest and follow through. In my line of work I learned two things that allowed me to earn trust. First, don’t make commitments you can’t keep. Second, always tell the truth even if it hurts. As an appointed employee of the board, I always found it easy to tell people the truth even if my brutal honesty hurt the other person and was not what they wanted to hear.
It’s more difficult for most elected officials to be brutally honest. Each interaction with a constituent is an opportunity to win or lose a vote. Telling you what you want to hear is easy. Telling the truth may not land so well. It’s difficult for an elected official to keep a commitment because three other board members have to go along with it. In my case, if I wanted to get something accomplished, I had to get four votes out of seven from the board. Managers shouldn’t get in the habit of making recommendations their board doesn’t support, because they might not have a job for long. Further, it wasn’t my job to tell the public what the board did was good or bad. I worked for them — and they work for you. You hold them accountable.
Many people assume fairness went out the window with recent “polarization” between the two major political parties. Sorry to bust the bubble, but the two-party system has always had disagreements. The difference between today and say 30 years ago is you get to see it in real time and there is more of it. When I was growing up there were three TV stations that gave the news maybe three times a day. Today we have TV stations that report 24 hours a day. When news is slow, they go looking for it. When there isn’t news, they give their opinion. It’s now more entertainment than reporting. When we have an election of significance the networks talk about the differences of the candidates and interview them 24 hours a day. Political ads are running all day long. It makes things look more polarized when they were that way all along. We just get to see it more often.
Now you probably believe I’m blaming the media for political polarization. No — they’re just talking. You’re listening and reacting. I get frustrated with people who vote based on a 30 second sound bite or candidates calling each other names that are just buzzwords. Last month I wrote about citizen engagement. Swinging your vote based on information digested in less than 30 seconds is not research. It’s not fair to our democratic process that citizens can be swayed so easily. Who is really to blame for the outcome? Voters should do their homework and understand who they’re putting in positions where important decisions are being made every day.
I can remember a picture of U.S. Representative Tip O’Neill (then Speaker of the House and a Democrat from Massachusetts), holding up the arm of Senator Bob Dole (then the Republican Senate Majority Leader) when they passed bipartisan legislation to move our country forward. Bipartisan legislation takes compromise. Believe it or not, there are still a lot of bipartisan votes at all levels of government, you just don’t hear a lot about them. The most difficult issues are the ones that are most polarizing. Just a few months ago inflation and the economy were the top issues in the general election. Has Congress or the President passed legislation to address inflation since January?
How do trust and fairness play into all this? To move our country forward, both parties should try to work together and compromise. That will be blasphemous to many on either side. But when two people compromise, trust is created as long as both can say they got something out of it. Fairness comes into play because a good compromise seems more fair than one side winning all the time.
I’ve never liked the word fair. What I view as fair you may view as unfair. The most important characteristic of a good relationship is respect. Unfortunately, when people think or act differently, we do not respect their right to be different. This creates trust issues, and when we can’t trust each other, we can’t compromise. That’s not fair to anyone.
One last point on politics. In my experience, anyone can be a critic. It’s easy. You don’t have to stand for anything and you can criticize what the majority does without ever being held accountable. But when the situation flips and the critic has to govern, they often have trouble adjusting. Just like in school, the bully doesn’t like to be bullied.
Having seen effective boards work, when the majority is willing to have the minority involved, there is less critiquing going on. This creates trust and fairness. When the majority crams it down the throats of the minority — well, that’s when we have to go to Raleigh to find fair.
Dr. John Crumpton retired as Lee County Manager after 16 years on February 28.