Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
As we survey the national landscape it has become more than apparent that there is simply a fundamental lack of trust in government running rampant throughout our nation. Politics as usual and a breach of the public trust by many elected officials has led to a sense of unease and even outright anger taking hold while shaking the very foundations of our political process. There’s no easy way to overcome an untenable situation, but if we’re to address rebuilding trust in government I would submit to you that it simply has to start at the local level.
During nine years in office I sought daily to earn the trust of local citizens from throughout the city of Augusta. I did this by being accessible with an open door policy and by keeping a finger on the pulse of our citizenry through interacting with them at the grassroots level on a weekly basis. I’ve often shared that the most important work of building trust between a local elected official and the citizens they are sworn to serve doesn’t happen when the cameras are on at staged press events. It happens by interacting with people in their neighborhoods, at their places of worship or even at the local grocery store when there are no cameras or reporters in sight.
Unlike our national and state level counterparts doing the people’s business in Washington or a State Capital, local elected officials have the opportunity to make themselves approachable and available to their citizenry daily by simply taking the time to listen one-on-one to their concerns in the comfort zone of the places where they live, work and play. I can speak from personal experience in saying that if you want an honest opinion from your constituents, go sit in the steam room at your local YMCA and the folks sitting around the room sweating it out with you eye-to-eye will be happy to share it in no uncertain terms.
In reflecting back on my time spent as a public servant I’ve come to the realization that, often for good reason, there is also a fundamental lack of trust in politicians in general. While in office, I remember wondering why certain individuals would seem to not believe anything I said or did when I had nothing to personally gain through my office. I made my decision to run three times simply because I have a great love for my city and the people who call it home. Through the years I noticed that many of my most ardent critics actually came around over time but that it certainly didn’t happen overnight. In hindsight I now realize the simple fact that my trust building efforts didn’t have only to do with establishing trust in me and in our local government as a whole. Establishing those bonds of trust also meant getting beyond the preconceived notion of what a somewhat cynical general public had when it came to their view of an elected official being a “typical politician”. In the end I learned a very valuable lesson during my time in office: trust isn’t just given, it’s earned.
I’ve long believed that one of the greatest impacts anyone can have on the community’s they call home is to offer themselves for service at the local level. It is also my firm belief that if we’re going to change the tenor of our current political situation, it must come from the grassroots up and not from the top down. The role local governments and local elected officials have to play in returning trust to government is now more important than ever. Although it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, as well as a great deal of patient persistence, I’ve witnessed firsthand that the public trust in government can be restored and built upon at the local level. If ever there was a time for local governments and local elected officials to step up to the plate and focus on building those bonds of trust with the citizens they serve, this is undoubtedly the time.