In summary

Leaders in every level of government will need to do their part to address eroding confidence in government, but local officials can play an important role.

By Erica L. Manuel, Special to CalMatters

Erica L. Manuel is CEO and executive director of the Institute for Local Government, emanuel@ca-ilg.org.

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Americans’ confidence in government is at an all-time low – sadly, that’s not new information. 

A September 2020 study from the Pew Research Center found that merely 20% of Americans trust the federal government. This is underscored by an article in The Atlantic released earlier in 2020 highlighting a global study that provides shocking evidence of a major decline in support of democracy – not only in the United States, but also in many other countries. In fact, global confidence in democracy has reached a historic low.

This does not bode well for our nation, our state or our local communities.

Leaders in every level of government will need to do their part to address this trend, but local governments in particular can play a unique and important role to help stem eroding confidence in democratic institutions and principles. Cities, counties and special districts are consistently the entry point for civic engagement. This is why local government leaders have a special opportunity to rebuild trust and confidence in local representative democracy.

In the wake of contentious political races at the national and state levels, plagued by partisanship and divisiveness, civility among elected leaders – and even within our communities – is at an all-time low. 

Local elected officials can and should step up and lead by example to model unity and encourage public trust and confidence. Cities statewide can view the recent election as the proverbial “reset button” and embrace changes to the composition of city councils to wipe the slate clean, maintain a focus on ethics and begin repairing the trust that has been damaged.

While elections offer an opportunity for new beginnings, maintaining civility and good governance throughout transitions and uncertainty is not easy. California communities continue to grapple with health orders related to COVID-19, immense wildfire devastation and sustained economic uncertainty. Local leaders are being tested now more than ever. A serious dose of civility in all levels of government – modeled by local leaders – will help all our communities emerge stronger after the dust settles.

Local officials in California can demonstrate and encourage civility in the local governing culture in many ways.

  • Model civility. 
  • Develop and follow a code of conduct. 
  • Periodically take stock. 
  • Maintain a shared understanding of roles and responsibilities. 
  • Encourage a team mentality. 
  • Seek out national, state and local professional development opportunities.
  • Think about how social justice, engagement and equity can be Integrated into your leadership principles. 

Civil and productive discourse is a foundation of our democracy. Without it, our political institutions suffer at every level. Civility is the antithesis of personal attacks, schoolyard insults, vicious innuendo, character assassination and hate speech. Civility cannot be ordered or mandated. It is not a strategy or leadership fad. It is a philosophy that must be practiced and reinforced daily as part of a larger governing culture.

The Institute for Local Government has built a longstanding practice and a suite of resources and training around topics of effective leadership and good governance to help address some of these common challenges. Local government leaders often look for assistance in these areas, but don’t always know where to turn for help.

Despite the challenging circumstances presented by COVID-19, partisan politics and social media overload, local government leaders have the opportunity and the responsibility to enact change at the local level for the sake of their own communities.

Most of us learned in elementary school how to treat one another with kindness and empathy. Now, as adults and leaders, we need to remember those critical life lessons to bring back civility to our halls of government and reverse the declining faith in democracy we’re witnessing today.

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