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The State of the Cities in 2012: Restoring Trust in Government

March 23, 2012

This is the fourth in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2012 State of the City speeches.

The economy is slowly recovering from the debilitating effects of the Great Recession to a point that maybe, just maybe, will allow mayors to breathe a little easier.  But they certainly cannot rest their feet on the desk, put their hands behind their heads, and wait for their cities’ fiscal health to come rolling back.  As reported in the most recent post in the State of the Cities series, cities’ fiscal challenges continue to be daunting.

As city leaders continue to combat these challenges, citizens see only the effects.  They are bogged down by huge governmental rifts at the federal level, rumors (entirely false) of increasing municipal defaults, and budget decisions that are hitting far too close to home in the form of cuts in jobs and services.

Novato, California, City Manager Michael Frank mentioned in his state of the city address a recent statewide survey from the Public Policy Institute of California.  According to the survey, only one in three Californians say they trust local government to do what is right.  The national picture looks far bleaker.  New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks reported to a packed ballroom of city leaders last week at the NLC Congressional City Conference that today only 11% of the population trusts government to do the right thing most of the time.  These figures are far lower than they were several decades ago.

The connection between the economic downturn and the fact that citizens’ trust in government is at an all-time low is undeniable.  The tough decisions city leaders are making have had an inevitable but debilitating effect on the level of trust citizens once held for government leaders.  Evident in this year’s state of the city addresses, mayors know they must work hard to regain their citizens’ trust and promote good governance.

In his post about reframing innovation in cities, Chris Hoene noted, “Recent dialogue about improving governance has focused on transparency…” But, Hoene adds, efforts to improve governance have “been too focused on efforts to make government data available on websites. More openly available data is a small piece of improving governance.  Instead, we need to focus on strengthening local democracy and civic capacity by actually engaging the public in the process of governing.”  But because the level of trust has dipped so low, city leaders are finding that they must build from the bottom, first by being transparent about government activities, funds used and services provided.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray, for example, discussed Grade.DC.gov in his state of the city address.  Grade.DC.gov allows residents to provide feedback on city services using their smart phones. When this system is fully operational, it will provide a transparent, real-time grade for every District agency.

Citizens are demanding transparency and openness from their local governments, but, as Hoene states, establishing trust in government only begins with transparency.  In order to win back the trust that cities so unfortunately lost, city leaders must take another step up and engage their citizens directly in decision-making and problem solving.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is using social media to engage the city’s residents through “crowdsourcing.”  A new interactive tool will move beyond displaying information on a website to synthesizing ideas submitted by residents and taking action on those that show promise for the city.  Citizens can see their ideas being realized, and are engaged with their city leaders to creatively solve problems.

This year’s state of the city addresses also show some efforts to establish trust among some of the nation’s most vulnerable but potentially influential populations.  In Washington, D.C., Mayor Gray is working to establish trust with the immigrant community by mandating that law-enforcement officials not serve as agents for federal immigration enforcement.  In his speech, he promoted Washington, D.C., as “One City”—a city that provides for and engages all residents, including immigrants.  In Caldwell, Idaho, Mayor Garret Nancolas established a Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, which gives youth the opportunity to participate in the decision making process, letting them know that they are a valued segment of the city’s population.

In their speeches, mayors have shown that they are pairing advances in technology with a little bit of commitment to increase their cities’ transparency about governmental activities.  These efforts are the foundation of a stable base of trust among their citizens.  But transparency is not enough.  As mayors pull their cities out of fiscal distress, they must also work to pull their citizens’ level of trust in government up from the lowest it’s been in decades.  There is little place to go but up but plenty of opportunity to build.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2012 on Citiesspeak.org. Don’t forget to check back over the next several weeks for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2012.

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