Citizens may know less than ever about what governments do for them every day, so it is imperative that public leaders improve citizen awarenessthereby mitigating antigovernment arguments that rarely offer tangible solutions to crises that seem to abound.

Getting Government Information

Charles Goodsell describes a very conflicted picture of citizen sentiments about government (hating taxes, but feeling favorable toward their own local governments), concluding that lay citizens do not have enough knowledge of bureaucracy to evaluate it accurately. Unfortunately, there is very little data on citizen knowledge levels, and studies that do exist focus on national knowledge, which is increasingly less relevant given the huge devolution of programs and services to state and local governments in the past 30 to 40 years. However, there is evidence to suggest that knowledge levels might be low.

National studies of civic literacy suggest that in spite of rising levels of overall education, Americans know about as much now about their governments as they did in past decades. What has changed is the civic information environment. The information environment describes the assortment of sources available to help citizens make decisions about their governments. It begins taking shape while we are in school when we first learn about democracy and taxation and continues through adulthood as we gather the information we need to vote, make decisions about policies to support, and take advantage of what our tax dollars provide us as common goods.

The Demise of Civics

As a result of cutbacks to civics curricula in public schools in the wake of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) math and reading requirements, just 27 states have retained civics curricula as of late 2007. This decreases the likelihood that young people will attain the knowledge they need to participate effectively in democracy or the skills to objectively critique what civic information is available.

The civics curricula that remain are substandardpromoting passive rather than active forms of citizenship, lacking in context and history, and relying too heavily on memorization of names and places. Some studies show that there is little to no additional civic knowledge gain after four years of college.

The 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results of student civics knowledge showed that two-thirds of students scored at a basic level of civics understanding and a little more than 20 percent reached a proficient level. By 2006, there was some improvement of civics knowledge among fourth graders (but for no other age groups) and knowledge levels continued to be higher for children whose parents have higher education or incomes. Early evidence of these post-NCLB changes suggest that civics learning has taken a serious hit.

The Empty Newspaper

In an ideal world, citizens could go to their newspaper to obtain most of what they need to understand and utilize government services as well as participate in democracy, but newspapers contain nowhere near the amount of civic information they used to. Newspapers used to offer multiple-page spreads on the work at state capitals during legislative sessions, information on the latest audit of public services, and the effective work of police, firefighters, or the local public hospital.

The historical significance of the newspaper cannot be overstated. Newspapers helped rally Americans to support what was going on during the Revolutionary, French-Indian, and Civil Wars, while simultaneously supporting the birth of the advertising industry and driving demands for universal literacy. At the turn of the last century, newspapers were extremely accessible, and Chicagotypical of large citiesoffered 37 separate papers printed in 24 different languages.

The uncovering of unethical behavior in American institutions, among the wealthy, and within the government peaked during the muckraking years of 1900 to 1912a purpose formalized in 1933 with the establishment of the American Newspaper Guild. Under Guild membership, journalists publicly committed to independence, impartiality, and factuality in reporting by establishing a code of ethics. From the Gilded Age to Watergate, journalists have provided a degree of transparency and reporting that has kept Americans informed about their communities and their governments.

In spite of the proliferation of other forms of media in the past decade, a significant proportion of Americans were still reading about their cities and states in the newspaper (91 percent over the period of 1985 through 2006) and relying upon local newspapers (second only to television) in 2006. The Pew Centers Project for Excellence in Journalism discovered that since the 1980s, government news stories have fallen off in both frequency and length. The tone of government coverage has also become significantly more negative. The 9/11 attacks produced a slight and temporary increase in federal news coverage and an improvement in tone, but this was limited only to the executive branch.

Can New Media Fill the Gaps?

New forms of media are flourishing and allowing citizens greater choice. Unfortunately, with so many choices, Americans are freer to choose the information sources that affirm their personal belief systems in contrast to promoting learning or exposure to other views. Because large gaps in government news coverage exist among older forms of mass communication, it is important to consider to what degree these newer forms of media are likely to fill these gaps by providing informative, objective, and accessible government news. The research is still accumulating.

Talk radio was resurrected in the wake of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and a number of ideologically oriented stations are now on the airwaves. The majority of talk radio formats are antigovernment, as are most listeners, and some believe that their popularity is a reflection of broader polarizations in American society.

On the other hand, there is little evidence that attitude change that results from talk radio use is due to knowledge gain, or that talk show hosts have any direct influence on how listeners feel about issues in the short or long term. Since talk radio is naturally oriented toward or against government in particular and some of the most popular talk radio shows are nationally syndicated, any government discussion that takes place is more likely to be national and negative, rather than local or objective.

Blogs have become outlets of expression for ordinary Americans and important tools for journalists, especially during campaign season. Political campaigns have begun to use blogsin 2004, presidential candidate Howard Dean used his Blog for America to create dialogue on topics that were not appearing in mainstream media. Blogs allow the public to interact directly with candidates and journalists, circumventing the gate keeping of editors and media owners, but this comes with a price, since blogs are still rarely edited or crosschecked for accuracy.

Online newspapers are also proliferating as the Internet has become a more central information source. Traditional print newspapers are providing online versions of their content and popular, exclusive web-based papers such as Slate.com and MSNBC. com rely upon traditional journalism for significant proportions of their content. The interactive nature of online news, complete with hypertext links to other sites, produces confusion for some users, which is likely to cause them to figuratively and literally disconnect.

What Does This Mean for Public Leaders?

How can public managers deal with the onslaught of information and improve citizen awareness?

Acknowledge What Citizens May Not Know or Understand

Simply knowing that citizens have no central, sure, or reliable source for government information means that what they know and understand may be limited or inaccurate. Inadequate or incorrect information can affect citizens abilities to access services and their attitudes toward taxes. Uninformed citizens may also be less likely to understand the basic purpose of a public service such as child welfare, environmental protection, or occupational safety, viewing these programs as intrusive violations of personal or business freedoms rather than the result of public policies responding to crises (child neglect, preservation of water quality, or prevention of workplace injuries, respectively).

As a result, most citizens also fail to realize that the laws, forms, and restrictions that come about do so because of lawsuits and legislation based on the appeals to public officials by fellow citizens. Realizing that knowledge gaps are likely can prompt public managers to act.

Survey Citizens About Satisfaction

Many of us are familiar with Gallup polls, but they rarely measure local government knowledge. The National Research Center contracts with local governments to administer the National Citizen Survey, which is intended to measure citizen satisfaction. Local governments with other arrangements with local universitys or research entities may join together to conduct similar surveys of citizen perspectives, or do their own with the guidance of the International City/ County Management Associations 2008 edition of Citizen Surveys for Local Government: A Comprehensive Guide to Making Them Matter. Gathering data can help identify attitudes as well as knowledge gaps.

Revamp Public Access Cable Offerings

The City of Cottage Grove, Minnesota, has created an award-winning public information cable show, modeled after Mike Rowe s popular Dirty Jobs series. To address the problem that city government can be a faceless entity with nameless people, the city has created TV segments that profile little-known jobs done by everyday city employees to improve the community. Getting the word out about everyday work can engage citizens as well as inform them.

Develop Relationships with Local Reporters

If your community still maintains a robust local newspaper or radio show, developing relationships with the reporters who are likely to cover your agency or program can go a long ways toward improving the likelihood that stories will be balanced and informative. Engaging the media also shows them that agencies care and governments are less likely to look reactive or defensive in media coverage.

Consider a Health Education Model

Public health approaches that promote health and disease prevention are instructive, particularly when service-delivery initiatives straddle other services such as social services or domestic violence solutions. Welltested public health education theories address the important mechanisms of how people take in new information that has an impact on their daily lives and behavior. Agencies with public health staff can take advantage of this internal expertise (or partner externally) and blend it with other services where appropriate.

Explore Marketing Approaches

In 1988, the City, County Communications and Marketing Association (3CMA) formed in response to the competition for government business brought about by privatization. To inform the public about what governments do well, 3CMA helps member agencies to communicate with the public. Although any marketing strategy for public service needs to avoid advocacy or propagandizing, 3CMAs master strategies include the promotion of community services to residents, the use of research to monitor trust, and the need to develop a communication plan all valid and important endeavors.

Consider Social MediaBut Understand Its Limits

Agencies are enthusiastically embracing social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, in an attempt to connect and inform, and research is just beginning to examine its effectiveness. Agencies need to be aware, however, that there are potential legal risks associated with social media use and public records, retention, and ownership. Also, computer and Internet use are still not universal among all citizens. The elderly, some people with disabilities, and some immigrants continue to lag in their access and comfort with technology.

Take Advantage of Every Citizen Contact

Like other seemingly noncritical government positions, public information officers and specialists (or intergovernmental relations and public affairs) have been hit hard by budget cuts. Smaller cities and rural counties may have never staffed these functions and in larger jurisdictions, entire units may now be reduced to a handful of staff. Complicating the need to know what works in these public information roles is the fact that local governments define them very differently making comparisons and assessment extremely challenging.

In education, teachers talk about teachable moments in which students are receptive to learning more beyond the immediate task at hand. When public servants have contact with the public, perhaps it is possible to take that opportunity to explain a little more about the why and how of what is being done. For example, if citizens are calling to know why theres a new form for obtaining license tabs, staff might also explain that the form is intended to make their next renewal faster and more efficient and support an online purchase system.

At worst, taking advantage of public contact to add additional information to citizens may take up a bit more staff time or irritate a citizen who does not want to be informed. At best, it could offer some helpful context to citizens, provide information that can help in a future agency contact, and reinforce the notion that rules are not arbitrary and are in fact part of a larger common good that has been legislated through democratic process. In this way, educating the public through service becomes part of how work is done.