One of the best ways elected officials or government entities can show respect for their constituents is to provide open, honest and timely communication about all matters affecting their constituents.
A recent local letter nicely illustrates this axiom. According to the writer, the Los Alamos County Council has drawn vocal and overt criticism from constituents regarding plans and projects that have taken citizens by surprise. These issues include development plans, land use policies, contract awards, and actions affecting local business.
Citizens have expressed concerns about Los Alamos County representatives taking actions and holding discussions affecting the Public Good behind closed doors, out of earshot and public view. Many feel that the results of these actions and discussions are being announced to the public at the Eleventh Hour, after they are already “done deals.”
Regardless of the motivations and rationale behind the actions of our councilors, the unfortunate truth is that when the public’s business is done out of view, the public has no other choice than to create its own narrative about the hows and whys of whatever happened. In a high-trust environment, the narrative usually gives benefit of the doubt to those who hold power; but when those in power have squandered the public’s trust and have done little to build goodwill through honesty and openness, the narrative is not so flattering.
As a public affairs practitioner, I have seen this scenario play out time and time again—among both good people and the nefarious. Sadly, crises of confidence savage the virtuous just as vigorously as the villainous.
Fortunately, there is a relatively straightforward way for the County to regain the trust of the public: Over-communication—informing people at the earliest possible moment what is going on, who will be affected, what effects (positive and negative) it will have on people and the community, when might it happen, why it is happening, and what can people do to involve themselves in the planning and decision-making process at the earliest possible moment. This information should be re-iterated continuously throughout the process over and over again until a final decision is made. And it must be done for every issue that affects the life or livelihood of even one single constituent.
Over-communication requires consistency and dedication on the part of the communicator. A process of over-communication cannot be started and then abandoned once trust indicators begin trending in the right direction.
Consistent open, honest, robust and timely communication not only builds increased trust and goodwill of our local government, but also leads to better overall decisions that are accepted and welcomed by the majority of most affected constituents. In other words, communication is a win-win for all involved parties—and Los Alamos as a whole.
There are a couple of other quick points to make as well:
The communicator doesn’t get to decide when they have adequately communicated something. That is a decision to be made by constituents. We often hear elected officials saying, “But they should have known about that because we communicated it several times.” That might be true, but obviously the communications were lacking. It’s time to go back to the drawing board.
The public is often told, “If we had said anything publicly about this, the [interested business entity] wouldn’t have wanted to continue discussions.” Such philosophy is wrong-headed. The bottom line: When doing the public’s business, the interests of the public outweigh the interests of any other entity. If the council or the county bureaucracy does not hold public interest and public trust as sacrosanct, then it’s time for new councilors and/or a new county bureaucracy.
Finally, in matters of communication, the buck stops with the Council. It alone is the entity that sets policy and the tone for the community. The Council is responsible for restoring the public trust, because it is the only entity out there with the charter, power and resources to do so.
It takes a lot of time and effort to build trust and goodwill. Without a commitment to open, honest and timely communication, a public entity’s trust and goodwill is nothing better than a house of cards that can collapse at any moment. As a candidate for Los Alamos County Council, I have an unfailing commitment to open, honest and timely communication.