Why Government Doesn’t Get Credit for Accomplishments

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Public Domain
July 6, 2017
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene

Spoiler Alert: We’ve been working for some time on a book, tentatively titled “The Conspiracy to Depress Us All.”  The central theme is pretty simple: Politicians, journalists, advocacy groups, and others are inclined to suggest that things are getting worse and worse in our country. Of course there are issues to be resolved, and state and local governments have their work cut out for them as they seek to improve levels of societal success. But for as many problems as there still are, there have been successes that don’t get equal coverage in the press. And government, which has had its hand in many of these wins, doesn’t get enough credit for those accomplishments

Consider, for example, a balanced report from the American Lung Association. When Accuweather.com wrote it up, the first thing readers saw was a headline that read: “4 in 10 Americans live with unhealthy pollution levels in their communities, 2017 ‘State of the Air’ report finds.”

While the piece itself provided more depth, the headline sounds awful, right? In fact, the 2017 Lung Association report had a great deal of positive information: “The authors found continued improvements in air quality in 2013-2015 ozone and year-round particular pollution.” says the State of the Air Report. The Accuweather headline itself exposes only a small portion of the story, and unfortunately many readers rarely get beyond the headlines. As the report, itself, reads, “The number of people exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution dropped to more than 125 million people from 166 million in the years covered in the 2016 report.”

Although the status quo may not be ideal, things aren’t getting worse here: they’re actually getting better.

Consider crime rates. There’s a pervasive narrative that crime rates in big cities have been escalating in recent years. Chicago has become a poster child for this proposition, partially as a result of comments made by President Trump back in February. There are “literally hundreds of shootings a month,” he said. “It’s worse than some of the places that we read about in the Middle East where you have wars going on.”

But is this the harsh, universal reality of our cities, as many listeners may have been lead to believe? No. According to an April 18, 2017 Brennan Center for Justice report, “Crime has dropped precipitously in the last quarter-century. While crime may fall in some years and rise in others, annual variations are not indicative of long term trends. While murder rates have increased in some cities, this report finds no evidence that the public safety gains of the last two and a half decades are being reversed. Today’s crime rate is less than half of what it was in 1991.” Depending on the year and the location, certain types of crime may fluctuate, but crime overall across the country has been declining.

Another space where government has helped to precipitate positive change: children’s health. The health of  poor American children over the last 20 years has been improving, and yet “the dominant narrative has completely ignored these improvements,” said Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, in a news release from the school. “It’s surprising how large the reductions in mortality are for younger people, how they extend through childhood into young adulthood, and how little anyone has paid attention to this incredible health success story.”

What are the reasons that negative narratives dominate and governments miss out on the opportunity to celebrate their successes? After a quarter of a century of listening to city and state leaders complain about difficulties having their success stories heard, we’ve noticed a few important trends.”

For one thing, the press is dominated by a desire to attract readers. Though there’s no cabal of journalists intent on misleading the public, there is a critical mass interested in getting more readers. This has become even truer of late, as the success of on–line news is measured by the number of people who click on that story. How do you accomplish that? By hyping the headlines. We had a friend who worked for one of the giant on–line news purveyors, spending hours each day tinkering with headlines in order to get more hits on the stories she edited.

“Sensational stories of crimes inflicted on innocent people play a lot better than a story about how things are better today than yesterday,” wrote Chris Oien, communications specialist for the Minnesota Council on Foundations,“The result of that mentality is a public left scared and unaware of the strides made toward a safer country.”

But the press (which, by the way, includes us!) is only part of the problem.
Some politicians are reluctant to acknowledge positive change because it indicates complacency or acceptance of the status quo. It may also give fodder to the opposition party at election time, if that’s the party that created the success. Sometimes politicians may believe that continuing to talk about a bad situation, even when they’ve contributed to an improvement, may diminish their capacity to raise more funding.

Who, after all, is going to make a hefty donation to a cause that doesn’t appear to need the money as much as it used to?

Even government agencies can be susceptible to the same “bad is better” mindset. When new administrations come in, agency heads want to make their own mark on the world. But it’s difficult to do that if business as usual appears to have been working very well. It’s far easier to make change – your own change – if you can make the case that the previous secretary wasn’t heading in the right direction, regardless what the measures may show.

Are there still plenty of problems for government to help solve? You bet. Increased violence in Chicago is a major local issue, climate change requires far greater attention, and continued automation still promises to impact jobs and the economy. But our immediate concern is simple: When the general public doesn’t see that progress can be—and is— made, they lose faith in the idea that their leaders are able to accomplish anything. And that lack of faith, and the accompanying mistrust of government, doesn’t do anyone any good.

Fels Institute of Government

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