There is a reason people have a particular perception of those who work in government and government has a responsibility to acknowledge and overcome that perception. For the most part, no one wants to visit a government office. They do so to be compliant with regulations, to move their lives forward, to fix a problem, or to get assistance. They come because they have to. Or at least it feels that way. They are probably dreading their trip to city hall. And how they feel matters. It matters because it is their city hall, and it is there to serve them. Not to mention, government requires engagement to function.

So where did this perception come from and why does it so desperately need to change? Government is essential. It’s not going away and since people need to interact, it doesn’t really matter how people feel about it. As long as it functions, everything is fine, right? Wrong!  People who do not appreciate interacting with their government will interact only when necessary. The poor civic engagement that ensues is the antithesis of government “for the people, by the people.” If we change this perception of the stodgy, puritanical bureaucrat, we can foster public engagement. And isn’t that better government? In fact, that is the simplest and most impactful way to positively change our democracy—getting people to participate in and take responsibility for their government.

Resentful Relationship?

Many people are dissatisfied with a government service, or they are experiencing a problem, yet they are not likely to go to a meeting of the governing body to provide their input or find out why something is the way it is. Sometimes it almost seems as though the government resents some of the individuals it serves. Consider an unhappy marriage wherein the two are “stuck” with one another, living with frustration, but unable or unwilling to make efforts to come to terms. Without communication and understanding, empathy for one another is harder to find, people become disenfranchised, and the relationship withers.

Eliminating Government Speak Eliminates Misunderstandings

For communication to be effective, it must be in a language everyone can understand. It’s about meeting people where they are. Therefore, part of this is about eliminating the “government-speak.”

Recently, in speaking with a friend who was concerned about how much her property value increased, I read to her a notice I found on her town’s website. The notice explained what we all know: that the tax rate is adjusted along with revaluations, and it did so in a comprehensive way that I found to be more than adequate. What a great thing that the town was proactive by putting that notice on their website. The problem? It was not front and center on the website at the time the reassessment notices were received by the property owners. Further, the notice referred to “appropriations” and “mil rate” and other terms used daily by town employees but entirely foreign to many property owners.

What I thought was a great attempt in proactive communication provided further frustration to the property owner. It felt to her like a disingenuous attempt to communicate, resulting in a lack of transparency.

This dynamic of misunderstanding makes every interaction at a government office critical in the mission to foster a better relationship—one that provides a happy customer. Someone who then might vote in support of the budget or join a committee. Or, perhaps in learning more from their experience a person might look into those running for office and vote to support them now that they know good things are happening. The alternative? A lack of understanding about why the city or town does what it does leads to a more disgruntled constituency, which may vote for change that is not actually in the best interest of the community simply for the sake of change.

How You and Your Staff Can Express Empathy

What does empathy look like in interacting with the public? Does it mean they always get what they want? No. Does it mean that they do not actually need all the forms and documents required to complete their process? No. It does not have to change the end result of why they came there that day. What it does mean is listening and expressing an understanding when frustration is heard without personalizing the anger. It means humanizing the experience by recognizing that the extensive paperwork is exhausting and explaining why each form is necessary or why the thing they want to do is not allowed.

Empathy is expressing an understanding that they are having a problem and affirming that they will be returning home without the result they were looking for but that now they understand why and how to fix it.

Whenever I tell a resident “no,” I always make a point to deliver the news with care and offer an appeal process or a higher authority to talk to if there is one. Offering people hope is an empathic gift that can change their whole day.

Let’s encourage our staff to pause and evaluate our processes away from being transactional and retrain ourselves to interact with people differently.

Imagine talking to the public like a teacher speaks to a child. Not in a demeaning way, but informative and empowering the resident to understand their situation differently.

It is easy to assume people know what we know about why the process is the way it is, or why the forms are needed, etc. Those kinds of transactional interactions that do not inform people with options, or the rationale for the situation, are exactly what “meeting people where they are” is not.

Changing the experience entirely can leave the customer more informed, feeling as though we care whether they are informed, and more apt to pick up the phone when they have a problem rather than ranting on social media. And all of it can lead to better engagement. “Do you have any questions about the proposed development project near you? I could give you the contact information of a person who could answer those questions. Or I could walk you down the hall.” It sounds like it would create more work. And in a sense, it may, but the return on investment by creating allies within the community and changing the tone of the public when they speak about their government is immeasurable.

Better Experiences as Empathy Moves Through Leadership to Employees to Residents

Being a leader imparts upon us a responsibility to be empathetic toward our employees as well. Your employees are the face of the organization and feel the wrath and discontent of the public perhaps daily; they are on the front lines. Even the less public-facing employees are there to serve the public and that should always be the premise by which we do all that we do. But wouldn’t we all do a better job in a supportive work culture? Maybe one that is more empathetic? Empathy, when imparted onto everything we touch, has resounding effects. When employees are treated with empathy via supportive communication from their supervisor, in a work culture that prioritizes the empathetic delivery of services, not only do the employees benefit, but the residents are more likely to receive good customer service.

Empathy belongs everywhere. Its role in government has been overlooked but simple changes can bring about profound change—perhaps bigger than we might imagine. It all starts by remembering to slow down and communicate with compassion and understanding. Let’s find ways to connect with each person as an individual based on why they came in or what is going on where they live. Moving away from a transactional process to a human experience is a great way to start.

Call for Content

Share your ideas with fellow ICMA members and local government leaders to advance the profession. We’re searching for interesting and insightful stories that can help others learn a memorable takeaway to serve their communities better.

Best practices, practical tips, innovative approaches, and lessons learned through success or failure are a few of the methods; PM magazine, ICMA Blog, Voices in Local Government Podcast, and videos are a few of the platforms. 

Whether it’s a completed draft ready to submit or an early concept, complete the short form or email Joe Supervielle, ICMA content manager, at jsupervielle@icma.org and we’ll get back to you on next steps.


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