Better Government

Words of Wisdom for Public Officials Trying to Connect With Citizens

Many public officials feel that much of the cynicism and distrust surrounding government exists because they haven’t properly “told their story.” Yet when the occasional media report surfaces about a jurisdiction engaging marketing or public relations professionals, the tone is usually critical, as if this is something that governments should not do.

That’s odd when you consider that, more and more, public officials are being urged to see their constituents as customers. After all, what successful business does not do marketing? Certainly a case can be made that public officials should not spend public money to simply promote themselves. But devoting time and resources to communicating with constituents, understanding their needs and explaining what government is doing is vitally important. We could probably legitimize it by calling it transparency. READ MORE

America’s 20-Year Winter

It may feel like autumn, but it’s winter in America. In her 2014 book, ReGENERATION: A Manifesto for America’s Next Leaders, the economist and futurist Rebecca Ryan builds on the concept of American “seasons” introduced by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Ryan writes that, much like the seasons of the year, “American life and society cycle through seasons, too,” and that each lasts about 20 years.

By that calculation, this is America’s fourth winter. The first was the period of the Revolution. The second was the Civil War and Reconstruction. And the third was the Great Depression. Our current winter began with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In winter the crises seem to come in waves. In this case, after 9/11 came the end of America’s longest running bull market, in 2002, which prompted Wall Street to invent new tools to make money. And that led, in September 2008, to the beginning of the Great Recession. READ MORE

D.C.’s Metro and the Power of a P3

As I listened to S&P Global’s Anne Selting at a Governing event earlier this year describe how public-private partnerships work, I had a sort of epiphany. “If Metro in Washington, D.C., were a P3,” I asked her, “would it still be falling apart right now?” She replied that, while S&P’s role is not to opine on public policy, her answer would be a qualified no. Under a P3 structure, she explained, the concession grantor, typically a government, is contractually committed to a funding regime that provides for adequate maintenance.

Maintenance -- the lack of it, that is -- is at the heart of the crisis facing the Washington region’s transit system. In the past year it has had several serious maintenance-related smoke and fire incidents, including one that resulted in a passenger’s death. Train delays and equipment failures, such as escalators and elevators not working, are an everyday reality for riders. With the subway system facing an $18 billion capital deficit over the next 10 years, fixing these problems will be extraordinarily difficult. READ MORE

Just Catch the Killers

Like many mayors, New Orleans’ Mitch Landrieu is trying to stop people from killing each other in his city. In an article in Governing’s May issue, J.B. Wogan describes Landrieu’s staff as seeing homicide as “a problem driven by forces largely outside the mayor’s control -- poverty, unemployment, substandard education, inadequate housing and regional migration trends.”

Actually, for mayors who struggle with how to respond to homicide, the answer is right in front of them: Focus on arresting those who commit murders. Three different ways of looking at violence in our communities bring me to this conclusion. READ MORE

Can Depression Make Someone a Better Politician?

Public officials at every level are united in their concern about growing opioid abuse. Calling it “a public health and safety crisis affecting communities across the country,” the National Governors Association released a report in February detailing the priorities of the nation’s governors for addressing that crisis.

What seems to be unrecognized, however, is that opioid abuse is just one of several concurrent crises relating to mental health, none of which can be dealt with successfully in isolation from the others. As many researchers have documented, suicide, loneliness and depression all have increased dramatically over the last several decades. READ MORE