When Citizens Understand the Cost of Government

There’s more to engaging the public in governance — making them part of decisions about paying for the services they value — than simply ‘educating’ them.
by | May 21, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

The conventional wisdom is that it is next to impossible to raise taxes in the current economic and political environment. But while there is broad anti-tax sentiment in the country, it's thin and fragile. And I see evidence that when citizens have adult-to-adult dialogue with each other and with public officials about the cost of government, a level of understanding and trust develops that allows, on a case-by-case basis, tax increases to maintain or improve services that citizens value.

It is true that ordinary citizens have little idea how much government costs. I remember a conversation I had years ago with a woman in Kansas City, a neighbor who ran a day-care business out of her home across the street from a little pocket park, where she took the kids to play when the weather was good. We were chatting while watching our children play, and she asked what I did for a living. When I told her I worked for the city government, she launched into a tirade, telling me that she was getting nothing for the taxes she was paying. She was ranting on about all this while sitting in a public park, surrounded by streets that cost tens of thousands of dollars to maintain and with sewer and water lines running under it. A police car went by — price tag: $20,000 — with two police officers in it — $50,000 a year each. A pumper fire truck passed by — $500,000 — with four firefighters in it — $50,000 each.

Despite that encounter, I cringe when I hear public officials talk about the need to "educate" the public on such issues as taxes and the cost of services. That implies a one-way conversation from teacher to student. It is true that facts need to be presented, but listening is critical. As Barbara Cohn Berman of the Fund for the City of New York documents in her book "Listening to the Public: Adding the Voice of the People to Government," citizens look at conditions in their community very differently from the way government officials do.

In Kansas City, for example, city public-works data showed that streets were in good condition, but citizen surveys showed that residents disagreed: They thought the streets were in terrible shape. The city auditor's office did a study with the objective of understanding the gap in perception. We learned that public works measured streets in tenth-of-a-mile segments, so if nine of ten segments were in good repair, the street got a 90 percent grade. But what matters to citizens is how smooth the streets are, and they don't drive in tenth-of-a-mile increments. A typical trip of five miles could produce several significant jolts and be rated as awful by motorists.

In addition to giving citizens the facts and listening to them, it's important to allow them to engage in dialogue with each other. I observed a group discussion, hosted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and carried out by AmericaSpeaks, on alternatives for funding badly needed repairs to the D.C.metropolitan area's transportation infrastructure. There were about 60 individuals from across the metro area, selected to be demographically representative of the larger community. In initial polling, more than 70 percent of them opposed a gas tax increase to fund transportation repairs. After a day of discussion with each other considering the pros and cons of various alternatives — including doing nothing — they were surveyed again, and less than 50 percent still opposed the gas tax increase.

Citizens care about their communities and their governments. When tax increases are honestly and truly needed, the way to get it done is not necessarily by "educating" citizens. It's accomplished by understanding and measuring what is important to them and working together with them.

Barbara Cohn Berman has a new book coming out describing how the techniques of listening to the public — what she calls "publicly engaged governance" — have been adopted by more than 70 local governments. Here's hoping that's just the beginning.