Perceptions of Public Officials and Citizens of the Public Decision-Making Process in the Midwest United States Jeff Ehrlich,Ed. D assistant Professor, Health Care Leadership

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Perceptions of Public Officials and Citizens of the Public Decision-Making Process in the Midwest United States
Jeff Ehrlich,Ed.D

Assistant Professor, Health Care Leadership,

Associate Dean of Hauptmann School for Public Affairs

Park University

911 Main, Suite 915

Kansas City, Missouri, United States, 64105

Becky Stuteville,Ph.D

Assistant Professor, Director of Masters of Public Affairs,

Hauptmann School for Public Affairs

Park University

911 Main, Suite 915

Kansas City, Missouri, United States, 64105


Abstract 2

Introduction 3

Who attends public meetings? 6

Review of the Literature 8

Why do people attend public meetings? 8

How should public meeting and the public participation process be designed? 11

How should conflict be dealt with? 14

How do you define civility? 17

Methodology 18

Citizen Responses 18

Public Officials 19

Why do people attend public meetings? 19

Fearful 20

When asking why citizens attended public meetings 32% of those that indicated emotional reasons said that they were fearful of what may be decided or acted upon. One respondent noted it was “Fear. If fear is involved, it motivates you to get involved, to engage and protect your interest. Another citizen stated “I worked at a hospital as a health professional. When I would see people fear they won't get their food stamps, you want to advocate for them.” One group member noted; “there are lots of things to fight for, (in public meetings) and if I think it will affect my ability to have enough money to live here, I'm going to get in there and fight for it.” Action also motivated another person. “Fear is one of the strongest motivators and can drive a lot of action.” 20

Anger 21

Anger also called citizens to action in public meetings. Thirty two percent of the responses related to emotions also mentioned anger as a strong reason to attend public meetings. “It would be more an anger issue with me. I’m not going to the city council meeting and congratulate someone”. Yet another participant noted; “Anger is the emotion that will drive me there or maybe curiosity. Things like financial or education or health care, employment or definitely immigration issues. I think if I knew something that might be of help from personal experience that I would speak. If I knew I could tell them how I feel. If I hear about it I would attend. It’s about frustration or anger.” One person posited: “For the first three years I was angry and thought these people were stupid and ignorant and I couldn’t even stand to talk to them. Then I decided the anger was only hurting me.” 21

Passion 21

Frustration 22

Self-Interest 24

How should meetings be designed? 25

The questions regarding meeting design and conflict were combined since structure, procedures, and ground rules are subthemes that permeated much of the focus group discussion on both design and conflict. 25

Design 25

Conflict 26

When asked about dealing with conflict, a city official discussed various meeting structure ideas as well. “Each meeting has its own dynamic. It’s about recognizing the dynamic. Not too much structure and no absolutes.” One manager stated it this way; “You have to call and be on the agenda. That way we know what the issues are about. This way we can educate evenly.” Another thought was; “anticipate (the issue) and head it off.” Another interesting point was to break the public into small groups. “It’s the best way to come up with ideas and avoid conflict.” Another city administrator noted that “Well, the truth is that I think [conflict] has to be dealt with immediately. And I think that it has to be deal with strongly.” 27

How do you define civility? 27

Limitations and Delimitations 29

A delimitation of this study looked at response rates to questions that were 10% or greater. While other interesting data was presented to the researchers, the length and complexity and reporting of these data was not feasible for this research paper. A major limitation of the research was the number of responses from public officials. While some of the public official views were similar in thought, a few comments were unique such as one who noted there were few, if any frustrations with city meetings. Another noted some meetings took on an air of citizen fanaticism. Perhaps interviewing a greater number of public officials may lead to either supporting or refuting some of the observations. 29

Conclusion 29

References: 32


Citizen participation in governmental decision-making is often regarded as an essential feature of democracy in the United States. The importance of citizen engagement in public and civic life is grounded in the United States’ heritage; yet the process which the public and decision-making officials encounter is often less than democratic. This research explored the responses of appointed public officials and compared the responses to those held by community members who attend publically held meeting and forums. The overarching research question asks: Does an opportunity exist for the general public and public officials to work collaboratively in an authentic effort of public discourse in the United States? Using data collected via focus groups with citizens and personal interviews with public officials, the study sought to identify what common ground exists between the expectations between the various public groups and officials. Three primary themes emerged from the focus groups and public official interviews; structure, procedure, and civility.

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