Former top fed outlines steps to rebuild public trust

ksaldarini@govexec.com

Rebuilding trust in government will take more than civil servants' hard work, a veteran federal official said Monday.

Elected officials and the public need to take more responsibility for solving the country's problems, former Cabinet member Elliot Richardson, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, said at a Council for Excellence in Government forum.

While Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government team urges civil servants to work hard to improve public trust, Richardson indicated that politicians often negate such efforts by paying lip service to critical issues. The public exacerbates the problem by ignoring political issues and making inconsistent demands of elected officials, he said.

Richardson acknowledged that the process of rebuilding trust in government is anything but easy, but said it involves four key steps:

  • Defining political problems
  • Identifying cost-effective solutions
  • Evaluating solutions for efficiency
  • Marketing solutions

Citizens must clearly define the problems they believe elected officials should address, Richardson said. Then politicians must develop plausible and efficient remedies to those problems.

Richardson said "phony" political solutions devised to tell citizens what they want to hear hurt public trust. Eliminating such bad political habits, he said, is the key to re-establishing trust in government. Richardson jokingly dubbed his solution the "Cut the Crap Club."

Richardson, who served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Commerce, noted that a career in public service is often thankless. Civil servants, he said, must be content with the knowledge that they serve the public good.

The speech was part of the Council for Excellence in Government's John C. Whitehead Forum, a lecture series in which prominent leaders share their views on how government can better meet national challenges.

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