Minnesota Cities Magazine

As I See It: What Symbols Are We Creating?

Jim MillerBy Jim Miller

A few years ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported on the pervasive system of bribes drivers were routinely forced to pay when stopped by Moscow police. A photo with the articled showed a Russian standing next to a police vehicle with the Moscow logo prominently displayed.

Undoubtedly, not all police in Moscow are corrupt, but to a large extent, it doesn’t matter; if one cop is corrupt, all are under suspicion. As with most things in life, people generalize from their specific experiences or from stories they read or hear.

About that same time, I read an article about a very different event, but one which I suspect had much the same effect. In this instance, local officials were trying to sway citizens in an Afghan village to be more sympathetic to the government.

The idea was to have police officers provide kites to the children in the village and to help fly them. The kites had important public relations slogans emblazoned on them such as stressing the importance of the rule of law, or equity for women. Local officials saw this as an opportunity to create positive community relations while reinforcing important messages.

What, you might wonder, could possibly go wrong? In this case, just about everything. Some of the police decided they would keep the kites; there were reports and graphic pictures of the police actually beating small children trying to get them. One officer brazenly responded, “We are not taking the kites, we are flying them ourselves.” Undoubtedly, not all of the police involved in the event acted this way, but as with the Moscow police example, all were likely painted with the same brush.

A much more positive example comes from a short article in a recent issue of Governing magazine about the driver of one bus in Washington, D.C., and the positive impression he creates by his super-friendly dispositionbus driver and the courteous way he interacts with passengers. The author, former Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Mark Funkhouser, states, “When the Metro transit system is looking for a tax or fare increase, the folks who ride Operator Perry’s bus will be more likely to support it than those who don’t.”

He contrasts the Operator Perry story with an experience he had shortly after being elected mayor. He and his wife were sitting outside a coffee shop while a city crew was repairing a major section of the street. He saw a woman drive her car up to the barrier to ask for directions since the street was blocked off.

According to the former mayor, one crew member “gruffly” directed her to simply turn around, and then he turned back to his co-workers laughing. Funkhouser wondered what impact this story would have as it was repeated again and again in coming days and weeks.

In one sense, governments legally are “persons” in that they can buy and sell, enter into contracts, etc. Yet, we commonly consider them more as things than people. And, of course, any individual authority, such as the ability to arrest people, is vested in the individuals by virtue of the impersonal organization’s authority. Nevertheless, the lasting impression outsiders have is formed, reinforced, or altered not by the “city,” but by the individual actions of its people.

When a city official pleads guilty to embezzling funds, legally it may be an indictment of that one person, but for many, it no doubt symbolizes their suspicion about government in general. When a dysfunctional city council week after week makes headlines about its inability to conduct the public’s business in a responsible way, citizens question the competence of the entire city government, sometimes with long-lasting consequences.

In such cases, the famous line from Pogo rings true: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It is equally true that when government’s reputation is enhanced, it is because of people like Operator Perry.

The actions of everyone in local government, from the seasonal employee to the mayor, are symbols that collectively form the identity and reputation of their organization. Size of budget, number of employees, tax rate, or years in office matter, but ultimately whether a local government is seen positively or negatively depends much more on the symbols its elected officials and employees create.

Jim Miller is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jmiller@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.

Read the March-April 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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