This is a guest post written by Greg Loh, Director of City Initiatives for the City of Syracuse, after attending the Bloomberg Philanthropies Communications Directors Convening.
When James Anderson took to the podium last week at the Bloomberg Philanthropies convening of communications directors from U.S. cities, he knew how to get my attention. James, who worked in a role just like mine under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City, is now the leader of Bloomberg’s Government Innovation team. He showed us the hard cold reality from the Edelman Trust Barometer: Americans don’t trust government. The data from the study, a respected annual report on attitudes about trust, is downright dreadful:
- Between 2017 and 2018, trust in government among the general U.S. population fell by 14 points to only 33 percent.
- Among the informed public, a cross section of people who, among other criteria, reported higher media consumption, the collapse was even greater: a staggering 30 percent decline to the same dismally low 33 percent.
For me, having begun in Syracuse city government only three months earlier – with a specific charge from Mayor Walsh to grow public involvement – seeing those findings was like staring up a steep hill on a long training run. Government can’t succeed without trust, and I had no reason to believe that Syracuse is immune to this decline in confidence.
So how can the city, at the beginning of a new administration, earn and maintain public trust? Attendees at the convening from across the country spent a day and half talking about trust and the role of communications in city government. By the time we were done, I had new found confidence in a path forward. Like getting to the top of that big hill, it can only be accomplished one step at a time. Here are my first three:
On the day after he was elected, Mayor Walsh promised his door would be open. He meant it, and since taking office in January, we’ve received a wave of feedback from the people of this city, on everything from sidewalk snow removal to the search for a new police chief. And we want more. As part of the city’s new strategic plan, we’ve committed to expand the quality and quantity of input we receive from the community. We want diversity of perspectives and will be reaching out to communities and people who, for too long, have not been heard by government. We’re also listening more on social media and will be adding new channels for listening, including a city blog and more meetings out in neighborhoods. Without listening, there is no foundation on which trust can stand.
Engaging means reaching out and sharing what we think and believe. City government has an obligation to show and explain how it uses the resources its residents provide. It should also reveal its plans and strategies for the future and invite people to join the journey. We’ve started that with the new budget for Fiscal Year 2019. Mayor Walsh and members of his team are making presentations and talking with residents about the budget, our vision for the city and the objectives that guided our spending decisions. Before the new fiscal year begins July 1, we will hold public forums called, “Where Your Tax Dollars Go,” to show how the city uses your money. The budget – including all of the numbers in spreadsheets you can analyze if you choose – is posted on DataCuse. Engaging creates understanding which is fundamental to trust.
People respond to leaders who do what they say they are going to do – who are true to the values they committed to uphold. That’s not always easy to do, because successful governing requires compromise. You can lead, though, without sacrificing what you believe in or letting progress get bogged in partisan debate. In Syracuse, Mayor Walsh campaigned on a promise to support the Syracuse Land Bank, which helps put vacant properties back in to productive use. In his first budget, he followed through, proposing an additional $750,000 in funding, subject to final approval by the Common Council.
Mayor Bloomberg put it this way in his welcome remarks at the convening:
When you’re mayor, people will not always agree with you, but they do want someone who is willing to step forward and say, “This is what I think we need to do.” And then do it. That leads to respect, another prerequisite for trust.
The former New York City mayor and successful businessman is passionate about the role of cities in lifting up society. Through Bloomberg Philanthropies, he’s donated more than $5.5 billion to help solve problems that cities and people around the world face. He has my trust, and my commitment to do everything I can do to rebuild trust in government, starting in Syracuse.
Greg Loh is the City of Syracuse’s director of city initiatives. Along with communications leaders from more than 50 U.S. cities, he attended the Bloomberg Philanthropies Communications Directors Convening April 19-21 in New York City. Bloomberg Philanthropies funded all costs for attendees.