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Political possibilities are keys to working with public.

When Americans talk about politics these days, it can get downright ugly. It's not unusual to hear citizens say, "Policymakers just completely ignore us, that's what bothers me." Or, "Politics doesn't solve problems - it's just a game."

Many public officials feel, however, that they're too responsive to citizen demands. We hear comments all the time that public officials try hard to "keep in touch" with public opinion, taking poll after poll. They weather public meetings where citizens practically try to "lynch" them. They're being pulled and tugged by every organized interest imaginable.

But it's still a fact, despite all of these efforts and travails, that the public is rip-roaring mad about the political process today. It has been confirmed by the news and noise of this presidential election year.

In 1990, research for Citizens and Politics, a major report for the Kettering Foundation, showed high approval ratings for President Bush and generally high confidence in government but with a strong undercurrent of discontent.

We hear about the disgruntled public not only at the federal level, but at the state and local levels, too. I recently returned from the Texas Municipal League conference in El Paso with an earful. A common refrain echoes among public officials asking, "What should we do?"

I've been invited to speak on this question to a National League of Cities conference next month in Louisville. The Harwood Group, a public issues research group, has been conducting a number of projects exploring aspects of the disgruntled public, including research in preparation for a national "town meeting" being planned jointly by Knight-Ridder Newspapers and CNN.

So what should public officials do? For starters, the real danger is to misread the public's anger. It is not some passing fancy. Citizens' concerns are broad and deep; they won't be disappearing soon.

Merely doing more of the same - more polls, more speechmaking, more public meetings that end in acrimony - simply will not work. Attempts to mask the anger will be met with disdain. New ways to vent anger, such as term limitations, will do little to address the public's core concern.

That concern is a yearning for a sense of possibilities, the hope or expectation that public officials and citizens can work together to solve problems. But people have built shells of self-interest and self-protection because they feel impotent; the political process isn't working for them. They want to feel listened to, not merely counted by a pollster. They want their public officials to engage them in meaningful ways, on subjects that matter, on tracks that lead somewhere.

Put simply, people are looking for politics to work, to pull them together rather than divide them. They are looking for a sense of connection to something larger than themselves - something I call the "public soul" - a theme we will return to throughout this series.

Five keys to

working with

the public

This is the first in a five-part series, leading up to the National League of Cities Local Government Professional Staff Conference, Sept. 24-26 in Louisville. The series will explore important approaches for working with the public.

* Creating Possibilities in Politics

* Building New Connections to Public

* Framing Issues in Public Terms

* Listening Closely to Citizen Voices

* Taking the Public Soul Perspective

Richard C. Harwood is president of The Harwood Group, a public issues research and innovations firm in Bethesda, Md. The firm works with public officials in workshops and projects aimed at defining policy problems and developing sustainable solutions.
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Title Annotation:includes related information on working with the public
Author:Harwood, Richard C.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Aug 31, 1992
Words:577
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