Government’s Trust Deficit: A Possible Antidote

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

It’s always challenging to affirm to Congress that public funds invested to improve individual and family preparedness are effective. I know, I’ve tried. Legislators have choices in authorizing and appropriating federal dollars. They are right to ask if emergency management is reaching its target populations with an effective preparedness message. Assurances emergency managers might provide Congress about the effectiveness of our programs are limited by government’s own narrow focus in assessing our nation’s readiness. One frequently missed opportunity is the failure to include citizens in exercises aimed at their preparedness. If practice yields better performance, perhaps we should let everyone play.

Typically, disaster exercises are mostly government-centric in emphasis. Excellent, well publicized community preparedness events such as the Great Shakeout do strike a chord with our citizens, but does that participation lead them to improved readiness? How would we know? While “Shakeout” is a proven attention-getter for earthquake preparedness, there remains a need for a concerted follow up to improve community readiness for a wide variety of natural hazards. Educational moments must be repeated. Learning must be refreshed.

A direct approach to citizens demonstrating concern for their personal safety might penetrate the divisive “white noise” that makes essential government messaging difficult to transmit in normal times and potentially impossible during emergencies. An on-line exercise series, targeted to known risks to a specific community that is easy to join and where anonymity is guaranteed would have these obvious benefits:

  • On-line exercises would be relatively inexpensive. Emergency managers already know the realistic threats their jurisdictions face, and the consequences people will encounter if they are unprepared. Thus scenario -building should not be complicated.
  • The series could begin with a more manageable scenario, and could expand in complexity and become more challenging as proficiency increases.
  • There are efficiencies to be gained in educating, while exercising, using available online capabilities. And the effectiveness of government messaging could be tested and revised as necessary based on direct feedback from participants.
  • Beyond the information delivered and received during such an exercise, there are intangible, long term benefits to exposing citizens to the challenges that government will face in the early days of a disaster. Why should government not share with the public in advance the challenges it would face, owning up to any inadequacies, and enlist the public’s help in making it less challenging for the government to respond and recover because the community is doing its part? Us reaching out to them demonstrates government’s commitment to their safety. Done properly, this might forge a link between the expectations of citizens of their government, and expectations of the government of its citizens.

Dialogue of this nature between government and general population does not exist presently. The tools exist; the need is there. The gaps in trust between the public and the government, as in the gaps between general awareness of the threat of natural hazards and the practical steps that can minimize those risks, are ours to close.

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