Citizens may know less than ever about what governments do for them
every day, so it is imperative that public leaders improve citizen
awarenessthereby mitigating antigovernment arguments that rarely
offer tangible solutions to crises that seem to abound.
Getting Government Information
Charles Goodsell describes a very conflicted picture of citizen
sentiments about government (hating taxes, but feeling favorable
toward their own local governments), concluding that lay citizens
do not have enough knowledge of bureaucracy to evaluate it
accurately. Unfortunately, there is very little data on citizen
knowledge levels, and studies that do exist focus on national
knowledge, which is increasingly less relevant given the huge
devolution of programs and services to state and local governments
in the past 30 to 40 years. However, there is evidence to suggest
that knowledge levels might be low.
National studies of civic literacy suggest that in spite of rising
levels of overall education, Americans know about as much now about
their governments as they did in past decades. What has changed is
the civic information environment. The information environment
describes the assortment of sources available to help citizens make
decisions about their governments. It begins taking shape while we
are in school when we first learn about democracy and taxation and
continues through adulthood as we gather the information we need to
vote, make decisions about policies to support, and take advantage
of what our tax dollars provide us as common goods.
The Demise of Civics
As a result of cutbacks to civics curricula in public schools in
the wake of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) math and reading
requirements, just 27 states have retained civics curricula as of
late 2007. This decreases the likelihood that young people will
attain the knowledge they need to participate effectively in
democracy or the skills to objectively critique what civic
information is available.
The civics curricula that remain are substandardpromoting passive
rather than active forms of citizenship, lacking in context and
history, and relying too heavily on memorization of names and
places. Some studies show that there is little to no additional
civic knowledge gain after four years of college.
The 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results
of student civics knowledge showed that two-thirds of students
scored at a basic level of civics understanding and a little more
than 20 percent reached a proficient level. By 2006, there was some
improvement of civics knowledge among fourth graders (but for no
other age groups) and knowledge levels continued to be higher for
children whose parents have higher education or incomes. Early
evidence of these post-NCLB changes suggest that civics learning
has taken a serious hit.
The Empty Newspaper
In an ideal world, citizens could go to their newspaper to obtain
most of what they need to understand and utilize government
services as well as participate in democracy, but newspapers
contain nowhere near the amount of civic information they used to.
Newspapers used to offer multiple-page spreads on the work at state
capitals during legislative sessions, information on the latest
audit of public services, and the effective work of police,
firefighters, or the local public hospital.
The historical significance of the newspaper cannot be overstated.
Newspapers helped rally Americans to support what was going on
during the Revolutionary, French-Indian, and Civil Wars, while
simultaneously supporting the birth of the advertising industry and
driving demands for universal literacy. At the turn of the last
century, newspapers were extremely accessible, and Chicagotypical
of large citiesoffered 37 separate papers printed in 24 different
The uncovering of unethical behavior in American institutions,
among the wealthy, and within the government peaked during the
muckraking years of 1900 to 1912a purpose formalized in 1933 with
the establishment of the American Newspaper Guild. Under Guild
membership, journalists publicly committed to independence,
impartiality, and factuality in reporting by establishing a code of
ethics. From the Gilded Age to Watergate, journalists have provided
a degree of transparency and reporting that has kept Americans
informed about their communities and their governments.
In spite of the proliferation of other forms of media in the past
decade, a significant proportion of Americans were still reading
about their cities and states in the newspaper (91 percent over the
period of 1985 through 2006) and relying upon local newspapers
(second only to television) in 2006. The Pew Centers Project for
Excellence in Journalism discovered that since the 1980s,
government news stories have fallen off in both frequency and
length. The tone of government coverage has also become
significantly more negative. The 9/11 attacks produced a slight and
temporary increase in federal news coverage and an improvement in
tone, but this was limited only to the executive branch.
Can New Media Fill the Gaps?
New forms of media are flourishing and allowing citizens greater
choice. Unfortunately, with so many choices, Americans are freer to
choose the information sources that affirm their personal belief
systems in contrast to promoting learning or exposure to other
views. Because large gaps in government news coverage exist among
older forms of mass communication, it is important to consider to
what degree these newer forms of media are likely to fill these
gaps by providing informative, objective, and accessible government
news. The research is still accumulating.
Talk radio was resurrected in the wake of the repeal of the
Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and a number of ideologically oriented
stations are now on the airwaves. The majority of talk radio
formats are antigovernment, as are most listeners, and some believe
that their popularity is a reflection of broader polarizations in
On the other hand, there is little evidence that attitude change
that results from talk radio use is due to knowledge gain, or that
talk show hosts have any direct influence on how listeners feel
about issues in the short or long term. Since talk radio is
naturally oriented toward or against government in particular and
some of the most popular talk radio shows are nationally
syndicated, any government discussion that takes place is more
likely to be national and negative, rather than local or objective.
Blogs have become outlets of expression for ordinary Americans and
important tools for journalists, especially during campaign season.
Political campaigns have begun to use blogsin 2004, presidential
candidate Howard Dean used his Blog for America to create dialogue
on topics that were not appearing in mainstream media. Blogs allow
the public to interact directly with candidates and journalists,
circumventing the gate keeping of editors and media owners, but
this comes with a price, since blogs are still rarely edited or
crosschecked for accuracy.
Online newspapers are also proliferating as the Internet has become
a more central information source. Traditional print newspapers are
providing online versions of their content and popular, exclusive
web-based papers such as Slate.com and MSNBC. com rely upon
traditional journalism for significant proportions of their
content. The interactive nature of online news, complete with
hypertext links to other sites, produces confusion for some users,
which is likely to cause them to figuratively and literally
What Does This Mean for Public Leaders?
How can public managers deal with the onslaught of information and
improve citizen awareness?
Acknowledge What Citizens May Not Know or
Simply knowing that citizens have no central, sure, or reliable
source for government information means that what they know and
understand may be limited or inaccurate. Inadequate or incorrect
information can affect citizens abilities to access services and
their attitudes toward taxes. Uninformed citizens may also be less
likely to understand the basic purpose of a public service such as
child welfare, environmental protection, or occupational safety,
viewing these programs as intrusive violations of personal or
business freedoms rather than the result of public policies
responding to crises (child neglect, preservation of water quality,
or prevention of workplace injuries, respectively).
As a result, most citizens also fail to realize that the laws,
forms, and restrictions that come about do so because of lawsuits
and legislation based on the appeals to public officials by fellow
citizens. Realizing that knowledge gaps are likely can prompt
public managers to act.
Survey Citizens About Satisfaction
Many of us are familiar with Gallup polls, but they rarely measure
local government knowledge. The National Research Center contracts
with local governments to administer the National Citizen Survey,
which is intended to measure citizen satisfaction. Local
governments with other arrangements with local universitys or
research entities may join together to conduct similar surveys of
citizen perspectives, or do their own with the guidance of the
International City/ County Management Associations 2008 edition of
Citizen Surveys for Local Government: A Comprehensive Guide to
Making Them Matter. Gathering data can help identify attitudes as
well as knowledge gaps.
Revamp Public Access Cable Offerings
The City of Cottage Grove, Minnesota, has created an award-winning
public information cable show, modeled after Mike Rowe s popular
Dirty Jobs series. To address the problem that city government can
be a faceless entity with nameless people, the city has created TV
segments that profile little-known jobs done by everyday city
employees to improve the community. Getting the word out about
everyday work can engage citizens as well as inform them.
Develop Relationships with Local Reporters
If your community still maintains a robust local newspaper or radio
show, developing relationships with the reporters who are likely to
cover your agency or program can go a long ways toward improving
the likelihood that stories will be balanced and informative.
Engaging the media also shows them that agencies care and
governments are less likely to look reactive or defensive in media
Consider a Health Education Model
Public health approaches that promote health and disease prevention
are instructive, particularly when service-delivery initiatives
straddle other services such as social services or domestic
violence solutions. Welltested public health education theories
address the important mechanisms of how people take in new
information that has an impact on their daily lives and behavior.
Agencies with public health staff can take advantage of this
internal expertise (or partner externally) and blend it with other
services where appropriate.
Explore Marketing Approaches
In 1988, the City, County Communications and Marketing Association
(3CMA) formed in response to the competition for government
business brought about by privatization. To inform the public about
what governments do well, 3CMA helps member agencies to communicate
with the public. Although any marketing strategy for public service
needs to avoid advocacy or propagandizing, 3CMAs master strategies
include the promotion of community services to residents, the use
of research to monitor trust, and the need to develop a
communication plan all valid and important endeavors.
Consider Social MediaBut Understand Its Limits
Agencies are enthusiastically embracing social media, such as
Twitter and Facebook, in an attempt to connect and inform, and
research is just beginning to examine its effectiveness. Agencies
need to be aware, however, that there are potential legal risks
associated with social media use and public records, retention, and
ownership. Also, computer and Internet use are still not universal
among all citizens. The elderly, some people with disabilities, and
some immigrants continue to lag in their access and comfort with
Take Advantage of Every Citizen Contact
Like other seemingly noncritical government positions, public
information officers and specialists (or intergovernmental
relations and public affairs) have been hit hard by budget cuts.
Smaller cities and rural counties may have never staffed these
functions and in larger jurisdictions, entire units may now be
reduced to a handful of staff. Complicating the need to know what
works in these public information roles is the fact that local
governments define them very differently making comparisons and
assessment extremely challenging.
In education, teachers talk about teachable moments in which
students are receptive to learning more beyond the immediate task
at hand. When public servants have contact with the public, perhaps
it is possible to take that opportunity to explain a little more
about the why and how of what is being done. For example, if
citizens are calling to know why theres a new form for obtaining
license tabs, staff might also explain that the form is intended to
make their next renewal faster and more efficient and support an
online purchase system.
At worst, taking advantage of public contact to add additional
information to citizens may take up a bit more staff time or
irritate a citizen who does not want to be informed. At best, it
could offer some helpful context to citizens, provide information
that can help in a future agency contact, and reinforce the notion
that rules are not arbitrary and are in fact part of a larger
common good that has been legislated through democratic process. In
this way, educating the public through service becomes part of how
work is done.