Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Dealing with Cynical Citizens

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Dealing with Cynical Citizens

Article excerpt

Widespread concern exists about public cynicism toward government (Gore, 1994; Dubnick and Rosenbloom, 1995; Greider, 1992; Lipset and Schneider, 1987; Ruscio, 1995; Cisneros and Parr, 1990). Manifestations of public cynicism include pervasive beliefs that government policies and public officials are corrupt, inept, or out to take advantage of citizens (Johnson, 1993). Such disillusionment causes alienation and disengagement and is therefore of key interest to public administration and processes of democratic governance. Yet, little is written about the role of public administrators in shaping public attitudes. Much of what is written focuses on typologies of citizen roles (Frederickson, 1991; Luton, 1993) and administrative processes for managing citizen involvement (Stivers, 1994; Thomas, 1993; Box, 1992).

This article responds to the need for a theory of citizen cynicism that is relevant to public administration. It also reports on the results of a national survey among city managers and chief administrative officers about perceptions of trust in local government. It finds that cities that foster positive citizen attitudes through a variety of strategies of participation, information, and reputation experience less cynicism than cities that do not. The effect of community conditions on trust is also examined.

A Theory of Cynicism

Cynicism is discussed in general terms in the literatures of trust and social capital. Many authors argue that all human relations and exchanges (economic, political, and social) require trust that promises will be honored, and that individuals are not taken advantage of (Coleman, 1990; Putnam, 1993; Bellah, et al., 1991; Mansbridge, 1990). Trust is seen as purposive, a lubricant of relations. It also provides a sense of belonging that serves the emotional needs of individuals. Cynicism is defined as low trust, specifically, a pervasive "disbelief in the possibility of good" in dealing with others (Damon, 1995; Barber, 1983; Merton, 1957). Cynicism increases social distance and diminishes the public spirit (Gore, 1994). "Social capital" refers to the number of trusting and mutually supportive relationships that members of a group draw on in realizing their economic, social, and political aims (Loury, 1987).

Individuals in groups with low levels of social capital often have too few interdependent relations to achieve their goals and are likely to experience disenfranchisement. Disappointment over unrealized goals contributes to cynical attitudes, which, in turn serve as barriers to forming productive relations, thus causing social capital to further erode in a vicious circle.

Cynical attitudes toward government often center on the integrity, purpose, and effectiveness of government and its officials (Starobin, 1995; Durant, 1995; O'Connell, Holzman, and Armandi, 1986; Jurie, 1988). The literature makes a distinction between ardent cynicism and milder forms. Ardent cynicism is usually linked to ideological beliefs that are highly critical of government, for example, "government is always out to get the ordinary citizen." Facts are used selectively to justify claims that "nothing ever changes" and that authorities use smoke and mirrors to appease and mislead the masses. Milder expressions of cynicism are often characterized by beliefs that are less critical of government (e.g., "government tries its best, but it just doesn't have the resources"), and by beliefs that give greater weight to facts (e.g., "government doesn't deliver on its promises: the roads are still not fixed"). Because of the greater dependence on facts, the milder form of cynicism may be more open to influence by reason.(1)

Theories of human motivation and behavior adapted from organizational behavior (McClelland, 1985; Bianco, 1994; Robertson and Tang, 1995) suggest that citizens question their relationship with government and experience disenfranchisement when the following conditions are present: (1) citizens believe that local government is using its power against them or otherwise not helping them; (2) citizens do not feel part of local government, or they feel misunderstood or ignored, and (3) citizens find local government services and policies to be ineffective. …

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