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So right now, we’re the scariest thing in America. By “we”, I mean government.
Chapman University does a study every year looking into the fears of average Americans using a random sampling of 1,200 adults across the country. And, corruption of government officials is the top fear…for the third year in a row. In fact, 75% of Americans are afraid of government corruption, topping the list by far.
Americans are more afraid of government corruption than they are of dying in a terrorist attack. More afraid of government than a loved one becoming seriously ill or dying. Yet, the odds of being killed in terrorist attacks are 1 in 20 million, and the odds of a loved one becoming seriously ill or dying is 1 in 1 over a long enough timeline. Which reminds us that fear isn’t rational.
Did you know we are born with fears—but not with phobias? That’s because fears serve a useful purpose. Fear focuses our energies and attention in a way designed for our survival and can sharpen our minds. But when our mind is distracted by irrational fears, a great deal of critical energy can be extended to pursuing or protecting against the wrong thing. And, we all have irrational fears.
For example, I have a deep-seeded fear of sharks. Many people do. But mine works not just when I’m in the ocean, but also when I’m in the swimming pool. I actually check from time to time to make sure one didn’t happen to find its way through the drain in some dramatic resurgence of the Jaws family bloodline into my hotel pool. Rational? No way. Embarrassing? Heck yeah.
The fact is I’m 3,300 times more likely to die from drowning than by being attacked by a shark. But, my irrational fear of swimming-pool-shark attacks prevents me from fully enjoying the experience of swimming, and leaves me focused on something that’s not the real danger. And that’s why the fear of government corruption topping the list should be so concerning. The hard truth is our residents are afraid of us. And because they are afraid of us, they don’t want to interact with us. And in many cases, we’re more than happy to oblige. We design systems so our residents don’t have to interact with us. We usually do this with best intent, but it may be having an unintended consequence.
In my opinion, the real enemy of government is apathy. And yet we spend time designing systems to minimize interactions with our citizens, instead of working to interact with our citizens in the right ways. We need more positive interactions and more positive touch points with our residents to lessen the fear. We need to go from apathy to engagement. But how?
And clarity is not transparency, but that is the best we usually do—if that. “Let them see the data and they can draw their own conclusions.” Even our language creates unintentional separation between us and our communities. But, transparency is not enough. Not nearly enough. Transparency, just making data available, breeds apathy, because who wants to interact with something they are afraid of? And transparency is not clarity. We want clarity.
Let me demonstrate the difference: “Causa latet vis est notissima.”
Am I saying a good thing or a bad thing? Is this something I should be afraid of? Translated from Latin, this means “the cause is hidden, the results are well known.” A great quote by Ovid. But, if you just read it in Latin, you likely don’t know what to make of it.
What I wrote was completely transparent, but it wasn’t clear. Once it became clear, you can make a decision about whether you’re okay with what I wrote, or whether you disagree. But since you likely don’t read Latin fluently, I wasn’t writing in a language you understand. And we do this all the time, which discourages our citizens from engaging with us. We speak government to our residents. And this creates two groups: those who speak government (us) and those who don’t (them), which is counter to our goal of engagement.
I call this bureaucracide. It’s death by 10,000 paper cuts or drowning in a sea of three-letter acronyms. It’s making it hard to be a part of your community. We use our own language, our own acronyms, our own jargon to service our customers, and we expect our residents to know how to “speak government.” No wonder there is no interest in interacting.
So we have to fix this to end the apathy. But how? We have to start with finding the facts to tell a story. What is the goal? What story is worth knowing? Always begin with the goal so the team knows where they are going, and then we can begin seeking clarity:
When you have achieved clarity, you can engage citizens and create a truly high-performance government. When you first engage, some will be upset. It’s normal. We must accept our residents have been afraid of us, push beyond, and continue to engage. It will take some time to heal, but when we tell the story and are honest and passionate about the facts, we will win over our communities. We will win over our residents and build community champions, creating a spiraling up effect of engagement, results and connection.
So I invite you to join us and commit to telling one story well. You know the one that needs telling in your organization. Measure data. Translate it into information. Be honest. Tell the story. Be human. Get people’s attention and engage. Then do it all over again. Create clarity one story and one step at a time.
This mission takes all of us. From the leader setting the goals, to the people doing the great work in the field (and collecting good data), to the tech team, the analyst, the manager, director and all the employees who speak the truth and make the story relatable. It takes every single one of us to tell the story in a way our community can understand and we have the tools and the ability to do it.
And if we achieve clarity, we will engage our citizens and start our communities on a path of spiraling up. We will fulfill the promise we’ve made to be stewards of our fellow humankind, by ending the apathy and erasing the fear. But it takes all of us to make it happen, so I hope you will join in this epic journey, and start your community’s first clarity initiative right now.
End the fear. The path is clear. Team Us.
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