We had coffee last week with a friend who works in a large government agency. Its good work benefits thousands of people, but the work is very technical, very complicated. She said her senior leadership is “conservative”, meaning they don’t like to communicate or meet with the public. She also said the agency is changing the way it provides its services and is getting a rough ride from news media and the public.
The public doesn’t understand the change.
More important, the public doesn’t trust the change. They can’t put a face on the organization, they don’t know its story, and they assume the worst.
My friend’s employer has an opportunity to tell their story – now that people are paying attention – but this will take determination on the part of senior leaders and their change-making managers. They would do well to meet with affected groups and communities, even if there’s a high risk that people will express distrust and even hostility towards the agency.
In the normal run of things, something like 60 per cent of the public will express concerns about a proposed development project, a change of policy direction, or a long-simmering public issue that needs fixing. Something like 40 per cent will support the government or the status quo, or more likely they won’t care.
The 60 per cent will expect public officials or private-sector project managers – strangers, very often, from outside the community – to listen respectfully to their accumulated grievances. Once this process of venting is done, most people are simply looking for a clear explanation of the facts and reassurance that their interests have been taken into account.
Hostility, in most cases, can be defused. The big organization that is perceived to be all-powerful can offer to modify its plan, or it can commit to supporting the community in other ways.
If hard-core hostility persists, there may be no remedy for it, but it’s useful to measure that hostility and understand the limits of its influence.
Winning public trust for a complicated agenda takes time. Time in the short term, spent with people in their neighbourhoods. Time in the longer term, building relationships where none existed before. Senior professionals who are builders and doers may view this activity as a distraction. The choice, really, is up to the decision-makers – whether to sail against the wind, with an increased risk of upset, or to look for a way to sail with the wind of public support.