Understanding the Public: The Role of Municipal Leaders

Understanding the Public: The Role of Municipal Leaders

Representative democracy rests upon the idea that elected leaders will (a) have meaningful understanding of the public, and (b) will allow that understanding to guide their actions.

A “meaningful understanding of the public” never will be a perfect understanding. Acquiring any understanding of the public at all, in fact, is a much more challenging task than one might imagine.

Election results, especially in our perpetually binary system, tell us relatively little. Data from the 2016 Presidential campaign simply provides the most recent proof that voters can be displeased with the choices presented and still, of course, someone will win the election.

Opinion polls (not the predictive election polls that must guess at turnout and can be wildly wrong) fare better. Because an opinion poll assessing the public’s view of some issue can be based on a relatively reliable model of the public’s basic characteristics (thanks to the decennial census and interim work by the U.S. Census Bureau, among other sources), a well-crafted sampling frame and sampling strategy can give us some confidence in the picture painted by the results. There still are challenges (e.g., nonparticipation that varies with population traits), but at least it’s something.

Even with a good sample, polls are subject to other distortions.  Ask people about the Affordable Care Act and one gets one distribution of opinion; about Obamacare, and one gets a different result. More importantly, the opinion any of us might express about a policy we’ve read or heard about might be very different from the opinion we have if we’ve experienced the policy’s effects directly.

What should we conclude from this? It is that getting a “meaningful understanding of the public” is difficult, and that no quantitative statement about “public opinion” is ever definitive.

Which is why, in addition to knowing the election results and the poll numbers, elected officials need their own personal encounters with the broadest possible range of “the public” that they can achieve. The more time spent with the public, the lower the barriers placed upon the public to encounter their elected officials, and the less insulation or control officials have over these encounters, the better the public can be known. The more time officials spend away from their constituents, the more difficult it is for the public to encounter their officials, and the more the officials control those encounters, the less well known the public will be.

No surprises there.

This is why I have more confidence in the understanding of the public our municipal elected officials have than I have of state or federal officials. No offense to the women and men who serve in these state and federal offices; I’m simply relying on what both science and human experience teaches about getting to know another person. It’s just much harder for a citizen from Greenacres to catch up with her state representative than it is for her to catch up with her councilmember.

This doesn’t mean that municipal elected officials necessarily have their fingers on the pulse of the public. It just increases the odds of understanding.

And what we need right now is better understanding.

Which is why we need our citizens, and their closest representatives the municipal leaders, to be heard.