Disconnect With The Public
By Alex Saitta
November 23, 2010
When I think about the state of our government and the people, clearly there is a disconnect between the two. The disconnect seems to be at all levels of government. Sure some governments and elected officials are in touch with their constituents, but most are not. The problem is worse at the federal level, between the people and Washington DC. We see that every day on Fox News or CNN.
I believe the school board has long had a similar disconnect with many in our county. Some boards have connected better with the people than others, but by and large, most have been disconnected from the true wants and needs of the people in this county.
Why The Disconnect?
1) Most all elected officials, from New York to California to Minnesota to Texas, focus on what they want and do not put a lot of thought into the cost of their wants because they only pay for an infinitesimal fraction of the cost themselves. John Q. Public has to pay for 100% of whatever he buys, so he equally weighs the value and the cost. You can understand why the public often questions the spending ways of their elected officials.
I think this is the main reason the school districtís building plan went from $158 million to nearly $400 million. All the way up, ďneedĒ came first and the cost was secondary.
2) Most elected officials are short-term in their thinking, because their primary concern is how this or that will affect their next election. John Q. Public tends to think longer-term and also about the long-term consequences of his short-term decisions.
For example, a lot of structural problems have built up in the US economy (e.g., staggering government debt, bad mortgages, how the welfare system is killing the national work ethic, etc). In time, the business cycle or a long and deep recession will fix those problems. Unfortunately, thatís not quick enough for the typical politician in Washington, so the government is trying to white-wash all those problems by printing money to get the economy moving now. What they donít see, and probably donít care about, is excessive money creation will lead to inflation in the long run.
3) Most elected officials live in a different section of the world and really donít see in their lives what is going on in John Q. Publicís life.
Have elected officials in Pickens County noticed 50 houses a month have been going to foreclo sure for the past three years? I doubt it, because that hasnít occurred to most of them or isnít occurring in their neighborhoods.
Have our county officials fully noticed many people canít afford to pay their taxes and their properties went to auction in October in record numbers? I doubt it, because most elected officials have the money to pay their taxes.
Have elected officials noticed the number of people that work in this county is about the same as it was in the 1990ís? There is no job growth. I doubt it, because most of either are retired and drawing a government check or are working and have not lost their job.
I think you get my point.
4) Another reason for the disconnect is at times elected officials purposely choose not to do what the people want. For example, in 2005 the county voted down a plan of $197 million with 62% of the vote. The message was clear ó fix the schools a little at a time and donít put us under a mountain of debt. Instead of listening, the board of 2006 passed a plan that was much bigger in scope and size, and they purposely went around the people to do it. Clearly the people where here on that issue and the board purposely decided to be way over there.
5) I see this reason often in our school district. The district makes an effort to connect with the community, but it doesnít know the best way to do it. Holding community meetings wasnít the best way to uncover what the public is thinking. The public as a whole is unlikely to go to one-time meetings, especially ones during the day. In order to raise the turnout the district auto-called and emailed parents. That raised turnout, but probably biased the audience with one group, so the feedback may not have been representative of the community as a whole.
6) This reason is glaring when you look at the districtís communication effort. The communication department doesnít have a finger on the pulse of public opinion. As a result, it isnít the public opinion adviser it needs to be to the district and board. As a result, the district is often blind sided by pub lic reaction to its initiatives.
Solution For Our School District:
Besides suggesting term limits for all, I have no idea what the federal and state governments can do to deal with their disconnect with the public.
However, if our school district truly wants to uncover what the public is thinking right now, and narrow it to 2 or 3 themes it can work on, there are three things I suggest it do.
First, sit down with Ben Trotter and Jimmy Gillespie. They just ran campaigns where they spoke to 2 to 3,000 average Joes and Janes. They are now experts on public opinion. They will tell you what the top 3 issues are with the public and where the public stands on those issues.
Second, the district staff should sit down with the 5 newspaper reporters. They cover every meeting and know school district issues. To balance their stories reporters seek out public opinion on what the board is doing, so they get an ear full from the public week-in and week-out. These reporters also move in various circles covering Chamber of Commerce banquets to Tea Party rallies. They hear all the chatter and are experts on public opinion too. I suggest the district ask them what the public is thinking.
The third thing is, by calling a meeting to solicit public input, few will show up. If the district wants to use a meeting format, I suggest getting on the agenda of a meeting that people regularly go to. For example, go to Rotary and for 10 minutes ques tion the audience on what the district is doing right or wrong. Go to a diverse set of meetings, from Clemson to Easley and youíll have good input.
Finally, to improve the communications effort, I think school board needs to get involved. I suggest the board create a public relations committee, with 3 board members. Suc cessful board members always have an ear to what the public is thinking, and listen closely. That committee can work with the district on an on-going basis and together they will improve the districtís communication with the public.