Why your government doesn’t engage you

Here’s a paradox: people working for the government have a tendency to believe that citizens don’t care. They think citizens want an effective, efficient government that operates quietly in the background steadily adapting to deliver higher quality services more economically. Yet, at the same time, they like to avoid social media like the plague. They view it as a trap to not get caught into.

Don’t get me wrong, many governments are beginning to take part in one-way communication online. They post information like important public notices, event notifications, or service updates. But, when it comes to a substantive discussion they miss the mark.

They do this by not going to Facebook groups like “I lived in [insert city name] before there were stoplights” or “Concerned citizens of [insert city name]”. They say that these Facebook groups are just looking for trouble. They even extend this as far as saying Nextdoor isn’t a good resource.

“The public is misinformed, and all they want to do is complain. After all, they only show up to meetings when it’s negative.” This is something you might here offhandedly while out for dinner. It’d be no surprise.

The paradox is that they say citizens don’t care while acknowledging that, actually, some do. Some really, really do. They just don’t care in a way that leaders like. They care loudly. They care from a place of misinformation or from a differing perspective. In short, they care in a way that governments don’t want them to care.

An inconvenient truth that I predict will become paramount in my career as it advances is that democracy in practice looks a lot like: some very active residents we might disagree with complaining regularly at meetings (the thorns in our side), some vague general frustration among the general public about some public policy issue (the mass that just complains and doesn’t do anything), and generally speaking, a mess. Human beings are messy. We’re emotional. We’re too busy to get all the facts. And all we know is we are worried about [insert issue].

It’s an unpopular opinion to say that governments should go head first into these public debates. It’s likely going to upset the apple cart, make it hard to execute policy efforts, and get as much done. However, we MUST do so if we are to adapt properly to changing demographics, if we are to adapt equitably to increased life demands and media distractions.