Building trust in government

By John Guevara
Contributor
with Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

People don’t trust government. And why should they? Politicians lie, they prevaricate, they over promise and under deliver.

Lines like “Make America Great Again,” “Move America Forward,” and “Yes We Can” have resonated from the presidential political campaigns of the 21st century. How can we trust the government when it doesn’t seem as though we have moved forward, that we have done anything or that greatness will be achieved again.

National campaigns aren’t the only ones to make promises. Remember “Excellence Everywhere”? Or “Good Government,” “Get ‘er Done,” or “The Right Priorities”? And when it’s time for reelection, a whole new slew of promises come pouring from the mouths of politicians as if they have forgotten the ones they made just a few short years before.

Yes, people do not trust government. The May report from the Pew Research Center confirms that our national government has seen a steady decline in public trust since 9/11.  Today, only 20 percent of Americans trust Washington politicians “just about always” or “most of the time.”

While local government fares better in the public eye, its approval is nothing to write home about. The National Research Center reported in October of 2016 that public trust in local government hovers at 50 percent. That’s right. Only one out of every two Americans trust their local government.

One reason public trust in local government is as high as it is (relatively) may be because people believe they can have more influence locally than they have nationally. When people perceive a problem locally, all they have to do is replace the captain of the ship for all to be well. What if replacing George III had been Washington and Jefferson’s solution instead of creating a new nation?

Now local government officials have been on a kick to improve their image with the public. Politicians have been talking about opening the books, transforming government, promoting transparency and so on for the better part of the past decade.

Ironically, the politicians who write specific ordinances or resolutions to transform government are often targeted in their re-election bids. Those encouraging forensic audits are often so maligned they never get elected.

It is easy to campaign on a promise to clean up corruption; it is hard to actually clean it up. We need more than a revolving door of politicians.

What is the solution? How can any resident hope to hold public officials accountable?

Agreeing with Geoff Mulgan’s sentiment that, “The responsibility for good government lies not just with governments themselves but also with every other part of the system they operate in, including media, non-governmental organizations, and the public,” we proposed the Contract with the Community.

The Rock River Times took its collective decades of political experience from both sides of the aisle and three terms of local public service to analyze the issues facing our community and determine if there was a way for the promises made by local public officials in their campaigns to be fulfilled.

Through this process, we identified 10 measurable areas requiring accountability from public officials and wrote our first column providing an overview of them and what we hope to accomplish through the Contract (click below to read each area):

  1. Transform government processes.
  2. Transparent budgeting.
  3. Reduced tax burden.
  4. Maximize efficiency.
  5. Grow the local economy.
  6. Safer streets.
  7. End culture of corruption.
  8. Improve student outcomes.
  9. Increase community health.
  10. Adopt best practices when available and blaze new trails where no best practices are found.

We spent the nearly three months detailing how local public officials can and should fulfill each point of the Contract. Through that time, many office holders and candidates for office expressed support for the Contract.

Over the coming weeks, we will be visiting with our elected and appointed public officials and ask for them to sign the Contract. We’ll get their insight into the document, and we will publish the list of signees on our website for the public to see which of their representatives are willing to make themselves openly accountable to “We the People.” As we go forward, we will continue to publish the Contract with the Community series, tracking the performance of our local officials.

“Good government only happens when the people working in it do their jobs well.” Sometimes it’s hard for us to know what jobs our public officials should be doing. The Contract with the Community series will serve as a resource for Rockford and Winnebago County residents to know what their government should be doing and to make sure their government does it.

Trust in government is hard to come by. Not only do we need a resource to hold our public officials accountable, we deserve it. We hope our Contract with the Community can help achieve those ends.

The Contract with the Community is our 10-point plan to ensure a better government for the citizens of our community. Read the complete series here.

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