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Addressing Misinformation’s Impact on Public Finance Jobs

With more people questioning the facts used in public finance, the Government Finance Officers Association has developed a curriculum that provides education and communication skills to remedy divisive and uncivil discourse.

The crowd at a “Save America” rally in Georgia
A “Save America” rally in Georgia.
(Ryan Sun/TNS)
Last year, the Pew Research Center surveyed citizens in 17 countries and found that “no public is more divided than Americans,” with 7 in 10 citing “very strong” conflicts between parties. But research by the nonprofit More in Common concluded that the great majority of Americans — almost 70 percent — are best characterized as “exhausted,” with 1 in 4 politically disengaged. Less than 10 percent, they say, are on either the far left or far right.

The divisive tone and incivility of public discourse common in national politics is pervading local government, says Chris Morrill, the executive director of the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA). Intense polarization makes it harder for those in public finance to do their jobs, work that underpins the ability of any government to accomplish its goals.

“By nature, finance folks want to use data, they want to use numbers — but when people question the facts, it’s hard to move things forward,” says Morrill. “Resource allocation is so critical that we wanted to see what we could do to help them be more successful.”

In addition to suffering collateral damage from fights at higher levels of government, finance officers face hostility from community members agitated by divisive rhetoric and misinformation. This is not just bad for morale; it’s also a threat to retention and recruitment at a time when public finance faces significant workforce challenges.

In an effort to turn things around, GFOA partnered with the nonprofit Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) to pilot a curriculum, Perspectives, that examines the foundations of political division and presents tools to make it easier to talk about divisive topics.

The findings of a controlled study of the curriculum are included in Bridging Political Divides in Local Government, a new white paper from GFOA, Constructive Dialogue and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).
The divisive tone that has infused federal politics is increasingly being felt at local levels.
(Adapted by GFOA from: Putnam, R. D. & Garrett, S. R. (2020). The upswing: How America came together a century ago and how we can do it again. Simon & Schuster, New York.)

Tired of Fighting

“There’s a lot of research coming out that shows people are tired of polarization, tired of fighting all the time,” says Mylien Duong, senior director of research at CDI. “We hear from the extreme left and the extreme right, and it gives a false sense that we have this stark dividing line — that’s actually not the case.”

In the Perspectives program, participants go through eight 30-minute online modules covering topics such as the impact of polarization, how people tend to misperceive each other, active listening, conflict resolution and finding common ground, says Duong.

“There is also a person-to-person component, where we match learners at random and give them a protocol for a conversation that begins with getting to know each other and gradually heats up to talk about more and more polarizing issues,” she says.

Before rolling Perspectives out, GFOA and CDI designed and conducted a randomized, controlled trial involving 248 GFOA volunteers. The two study groups had equivalent makeup, but one went through the program and the other did not. Attitudes were evaluated at start and finish.

Morrill, who served as city manager for Roanoke, Va., before coming to GFOA, went through the training, including the guided conversation. “I was partnered with a treasurer from a small county in Kansas who had a very different life experience than I did, and I was impressed with how well it worked,” he says.

“We found that the program was effective at reducing what’s called ‘affective polarization,’ which is basically a sense of contempt for the other party,” says Duong. “It also improved what’s called ‘intellectual humility,’ an openness to other ideas, and it reduced the use of attacks while in conflict with other people.”

Thriving Communities and Trust

Based on these outcomes, GFOA is offering Perspectives to all its members. Completion comes with continuing education credits.

“We’re also encouraging local folks to go through it together, whether it be the finance department or the whole leadership team,” says Morrill, inviting those who are interested in the program to contact GFOA.
Mylien Duong.
Mylien Duong: “We want people to hold onto their principles. We just want to get people to relate to each other as human to human.”

The training was developed in the context of GFOA’s Rethinking Budgeting initiative, a collaboration with ICMA, the National League of Cities and other partners. This research effort proceeds from a conviction that budgets are “the most important policy document that a local government produces.”

An inability to engage in civil discourse within government, or with the public, is a stumbling block in any attempt to create budgets that meet the real needs of communities, according to Morrill.

“It’s all about building trust, and polarization results in declining trust,” he says. That’s a big barrier to local government getting beyond incremental budgeting and building thriving communities.”

Duong recalls feedback from one learner from a liberal-leaning jurisdiction paired with a partner from one that was much more conservative. She found herself caring for and respecting someone that her media consumption had predisposed her to view as misinformed, even ill-intentioned.

“We want people to hold onto their principles,” says Duong. “We just want to get people to relate to each other as human to human.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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