In the 1990s, I was a welfare worker and fresh out of college, wanting to help people and change the world. Like most of my young, wide-eyed colleagues, I learned that work in public service was unexpectedly complex, rule-bound (most times for good reasons, like equity), and a matter of balancing the needs of a variety of important constituents. As so many have learned before me, Wilson’s public-administration dichotomy was just an idea: nearly everything we did required the expertise of educated, well-trained public servants with a knowledge of law and policy, but political considerations were woven throughout.
After this realization that public service was much more than good intentions. I developed a healthy and respectful appreciation for the dedication and expertise of my profession and rolled up my shirtsleeves. As I’ve moved through a variety of levels of local government over the past 20 years, from case worker, to supervisor, to planner, and now a researcher in academia, I’ve had the privilege to serve my fellow citizens, develop an array of skills, and continue to learn about the fascinating relationship American’s have with their governments.
One important realization has come to me at family dinners and office parties (usually for my spouse’s private-sector company) where individuals hate government and feel it is my obligation to respond to their complaints and questions. People hold the most amazingly inaccurate or uninformed perspectives of government and what it does. These perceptions range from musings about just why there are always so many forms for every process (usually because someone’s rights may be or have been violated, not because government workers like them) to a failure to connect their property tax cap (which they appreciate) to the fact their streets aren’t cleaned as often. Occasionally these conversations are unproductive and partisan and I’ve had to walk away but more frequently, they are rich opportunities to talk with others about the good work done in government. Oftentimes my dinner companions will say “you’ve given me something to think about” or “thanks for explaining that to me”. It has made me realize how little people know about what we do in public service.
It wasn’t until I returned to school for my doctorate that I began to examine American public knowledge of government in earnest. I am not alone in suspecting that citizen lack of awareness, or lack of “civic literacy” as Milner (2002) and Delli Carpini & Keeter (1996) call it, is behind a number of damaging trends in government like negativity and chronic defunding. Occasionally an editorial or polemic (Goodsell, 2003) addresses misconceptions and reminds us of the importance of our governments, but many believe that the future of public agencies is exemplified by continuous belt-tightening (Osborne & Hutchinson, 2004).
Lots has also changed in terms of how ordinary Americans obtain their “civic” news and learn to think critically about government. It will be important for governments to re-think their approaches to communicating with their citizens.