The People Who Will Give Americans the Government They Want

Trust in government is at historic lows. That will change, but it will happen from the bottom up.
February 3, 2014 AT 11:00 AM
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

It's not hard to understand why great majorities of Americans are so down on government. Wages are stagnant. Long-term unemployment is high. Folks living from paycheck to paycheck, as so many are, have a sort of constant low-level anxiety. So it should surprise no one that 63 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, as a recent average of polls found.

Much of the voters' frustration is focused on Washington. A recent Rasmussen poll shows that only 21 percent of voters feel that the federal government has the consent of the governed. And while that is up from an even more dismal number of a few months earlier, things are going the other way for Congress, according to a recent Gallup poll. Not only do only 17 percent of voters think most members of Congress don't deserve re-election, but only 46 percent say their own individual member of Congress should get another term. Both of these numbers are historic lows.

Eventually this will change. There's a limit to how bad things can get before the system self-corrects. That correction will come from the bottom, from the people themselves and from their state and local governments. It will be brought about in large degree through the electoral process, by grassroots organizations committed not only to economic and racial justice but also to a democratic system that delivers effective governance.

What makes me so confident that this will happen is what I see in my daily work. Nearly every day I talk to public officials from state and local governments. Some of them hold elected office, others have been appointed to positions of influence, and others are professionals who have devoted their careers to government service. Nearly all are decent folks, and some are extraordinary individuals who leave me inspired and filled with renewed hope and confidence in the future of our country. Sometimes I'll nominate one of them to be a Governing Public Official of the Year.

In the end, we can choose only a few of these outstanding individuals to be singled out for praise and admiration as Public Officials of the Year. This year's winners, who were profiled in the December issue of Governing, will be honored this evening at a banquet in Washington. As they are every year, the stories behind the honorees are wonderful and uplifting.

There is, for example, Bill Howell, who as speaker of Virginia's House of Delegates stood up against his own party, looking beyond partisan differences to pass sweeping new legislation for sustainable transportation funding. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, New York City's Emily Rahimi used the fire department's Twitter feed to help rescue people stranded by the storm and unable to get through to 911. And overcoming his own disillusionment with politics-as-usual, John Kitzhaber returned for a third term as Oregon's governor; committed to fostering a climate of dialogue and trust with his state's legislators, he empowered bold action, innovation and change.

It was only a year ago that another poll found that the public had a higher estimation of root canals, traffic jams and cockroaches than it had of Congress. That will change. Behind each of the eight people Governing will honor tonight are hundreds of other state and local government officials who are, often quietly and steadily, doing amazingly well at the vital job of making government work. Their ideas and influence will eventually push the federal government to be better.

Political change always comes from the bottom up. Someday we'll look at Congress and say it's not actually that bad -- certainly better than cockroaches. That's a low bar, but we have to start somewhere.