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Standards of Service

November 2, 2011

Last week, I attended the Northeast Conference on Public Administration. The conference focused on efforts to build trust and confidence in public service. In principle, I have nothing against trust and confidence, but as last week’s post probably made clear, I think these feelings only get you so far.

Several theorists suggest that trust and confidence is an important prerequisite of democracy legitimacy. But practitioners know the absence of trust is often a prime mover among the disaffected who show up at public meetings to influence officials. It should come as no surprise then that the more involved someone is in the political and administrative processes of government, the more likely they are to have trust and confidence in the outcome of public processes and those who make them.

Most of the distrust in government and public officials stems from the sense that these individuals and institutions are increasingly removed from the experiences of those they serve and the effects of the decisions they make. Firefighters, teachers, nurses, and cops often enjoy public approval ratings far higher than politicians because they have intimate contact with people, and those with whom they come into contact have little or no understanding of what they actually do or how they do it. As such, routine exposure to the good works of public officials does not necessarily translate into public support much less political power.

This begs the question then, what is public trust and confidence good for and how can public officials, especially homeland security practitioners, build it and use it to achieve important public purposes? For starters, we should recognize that what people say they want and what these desires mean often requires clarification.

I work in the fire service, where people often express their expectations of us as follows:

Speed — get there quickly.

Relevance — do the right thing.

Accuracy — do things right.

I imagine that these same expectations apply to many other aspects of the homeland security enterprise. Who wouldn’t like to get through passenger screening at the airport quickly, while knowing that the screening procedures were both the minimum necessary as well as sufficient to prevent any acts of terrorism from occurring?

When questions or controversies arise surrounding our service, however, it become clearer that people understand that these expectations come at a cost, and their desire for each is more or less elastic depending upon their situation and the circumstances attending their need for service. Over the years, it has become clearer to me that people assess our performance and detect deviations from their expectations a little differently than they usually express them:

Speed –> consistency, dependability — showing up at all is just as important as getting there quickly.

Relevance –> coherence, quality — actions other than the expected are acceptable when they are based on sound reasoning.

Accuracy –> compassion — whether a decision or action is acceptable depends upon how it makes people feel.

These days people are increasingly surprised to get any response at all, much less a quick one. Knowing that someone will show up every time they need help has become every bit as important as knowing that such help will come quickly. People need to know they can depend upon government to try, even if it comes up short sometimes. Inconsistency lends itself to the impression of undependability, even when the lack of responsiveness in some circumstances leads to faster responses in others.

When performance deviates from expectations, people look to experts for understanding. They need to know that the actions fit the circumstances, and they often judge this in one of two ways: 1) by how hard people are trying and 2) by whether things get better or at the very least stop getting worse. It matters very little to those watching whether the actions they observe have a direct effect on the outcome so long as they can see people making an effort. If things get better or stop getting worse, they naturally assume that the result arises from the actions undertaken.

Even if things end badly, people often judge the quality of the outcome and its appropriateness by how those engaged in the effort made them feel. People understand implicitly that when things start badly they often end badly. But they also appreciate it when those who respond to remedy the effects of their errors avoid the temptation to find fault, allocate blame or pass judgment, especially without learning all the facts first.

I have translated these observations about public expectations into three fairly simple and straightforward statements to guide operations where I work:

We always show up! We are there for each other and our community when they need us.

We take decisive action to make things better. We are neither spectators nor observers. We take reasonable risks to achieve appropriate results and accept responsibility for all of our actions.

We engage everyone with compassion and respect. We treat people they way we want to be treated. We seek understanding by looking at ourselves and the situations we face the way others see us.

I cannot tell you that this approach will transform public opinion or translate into broad public approval or political support for our agency or its actions. But I  can say with confidence that taking this approach makes me feel better about what we do and how we do it. More importantly, it speaks to why wo do what we do: We serve the public for their sake not our own.

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