Have you read the comments sections of local news stories online? They’re depressing. Readers make all sorts of accusations behind anonymous usernames, especially if it’s about their local government. And when it comes to government, even if it’s a positive story, someone will have a negative comment. If you believed all these comments, or read enough of them, you would think our government agencies, at all levels, employ lazy people, waste money, and are corrupt.
Here’s a reader comment courtesy of SFGate.com about police vehicle purchases: “Is this where the money to hire more police went? Oh, maybe the mayor went on another vacation at the expense of taxpayers. New cars and SUVs — now maybe they will be better able to do their jobs.”
Here’s another from NorthEscambia.com about the purchase of a natural gas truck: “Please explain the reasoning for spending our tax dollars on a blinged-out municipal work truck.”
I’m not saying all negative comments are unwarranted, but there is often more outrage than wrongdoing. These comments contribute to a negative perception of government and its workers. Commenters often forget the individuals behind the government, the people doing their best to keep public services going.
Scrutiny About Vehicle Purchasing
An example of what is sometimes viewed as wasteful spending is agencies purchasing vehicles that are seen as unnecessarily large, expensive, or luxurious.
Take the example of SUV police vehicles. I’ve seen numerous local news stories of police chiefs or fleet personnel defending their decision to purchase SUVs instead of sedans. There’s actually an analysis by Vincentric of MY-2010 vehicles that found the Chevrolet Tahoe had the lowest total cost of ownership over the available police sedans. (That’s the most current data available for police cars.) That’s not a detail an average resident would know when he sees a cop in an SUV and thinks, “Why does he need that gas-guzzling car?”
A fleet manager told me he’d been bashed by local media for purchasing hybrid vehicles when they first came out — a decision that, as he had predicted, later proved to save in fuel costs.
Get Good Press
There are ways to combat or prevent negative public perception, one of which is to get good press.
Communicate effectively at public meetings and prove you’re making the best decision. That means if you’re at a council meeting, you have the facts and numbers straight to state your case with confidence, justify your requests, and answer any questions that come up. The more a project costs, or the more controversial it is, the more questions you should be prepared to answer.
Another way to improve public perception is to build relationships with the agency’s public information officers (PIOs). PIOs can help disseminate information about recognition programs or projects that have resulted in savings. They can make sure good PR gets out to the right people with the right facts — it’s embarrassing having an official agency release with wrong numbers in it, which has happened before.
I’ve also seen mention of fleets in State of the City addresses, with elected leaders praising fleet accomplishments rather than just listing goals for improvement. Or consider asking city council members or county commissioners to recognize fleet employees for attaining a goal, such as completing a multi-year project or obtaining an ASE Blue Seal of Excellence. Local news agencies are likely to cover the annual speech as well as meetings of elected officials.
And there is an effective way to deal with those negative comments online. It might be more difficult for large cities to accomplish this, but in the NorthEscambia.com article cited earlier, the utilities PIO responded to most of the questions posed on the comment board. She responded three times, and hers was the last comment posted.
How often have you reconsidered your decisions based on how the public might view them? What are some ways to handle negative public perception?