Implementing Policies and Rules Can Help Rebuild Public Trust in Government

By Peter Bryan

Considering all the negative media coverage aimed at local government, including public safety, isn’t it about time we do everything possible to rebuild the public trust in us? This is not to say that all public trust is “broken”–the actions of the small minority have certainly “eroded” some of the public trust toward public safety. That same minority has certainly damaged public trust in some communities across our country. Almost every day, the media have a story about an arrest, a conviction, fraud, hazing, an indictment, or an infraction of a law. These are all negative “qualities” that we should be able to stop immediately. So how do we turn the negative coverage (for the media, bad sells) into positive?

Many agencies are already taking positive, proactive steps, but there appears to be more that we can do based on the media coverage. Most leaders would prefer no media coverage at all, far above the negative coverage. Notwithstanding the negative media coverage, there are also numerous legal issues and personnel discipline actions occurring that never get any media coverage, thankfully. This all suggests that local government can do better.

What has your agency done to rebuild public trust in local public safety government? What is working in your region? What have you seen done in other agencies?

What if we could implement “zero-tolerance” values and policies for all employees? What if we could collaborate, both labor and management, and develop or revise policies or rules that would emphasize serving the public as priority #1, emphasize positive behavior among public safety personnel at work, and emphasize public trust in the way we conduct business? Schools and local educational government are beginning to implement policies for “bullying and harassment”; the fire service should follow in adopting a hard line about negative behavior within its ranks.

Many states already have legal statutes and provisions that govern personnel investigations and discipline. Policies or rules are intended to establish the acceptable standards, values, and behaviors for employees. They can provide the necessary “expectations” to guide and direct behavior and performance at work. Knowing what to expect and the level of accountability is critical to positive employee behavior and performance.

Begin with the Basics

There are several topics that could be included in “zero-tolerance” policies. Zero tolerance is most appropriate for an instance where the behavior is “nonconforming to all reasonable standards and values” and some form of discipline is necessary. This is not to say that all discipline should result in termination, but rather that consistency of discipline is appropriate. Discipline can and does help to establish accountability.

Zero-tolerance offenses could include the following:

  • Criminal offences, both felony and misdemeanor
  • Disruptive negative attitudes
  • Discrimination and harassment (state and federal statutes usually define unlawful actions)
  • Hazing and other pranks
  • Intentional negative actions and behaviors
  • Use of illegal substances, alcohol use affecting performance, and drug and alcohol testing provisions

These are just some examples. More or less may be appropriate for your agency. For each chosen zero-tolerance offence, determine an appropriate discipline or range of discipline.

Policies and Actions Building Public Trust

There are several other areas where policies can build and emphasize public trust. These areas can certainly include fiscal management and “public impression” topics. Such policies could include the following:

  • Accountability and prioritization for revenue and expenditure decisions
  • Discipline for lying, cheating, and stealing
  • Fitness-for-duty provisions
  • Lead-by-example actions
  • Modified duty work programs and provisions
  • Curtailing nepotism and hiring practices
  • Off-duty behavior/acts with nexus to work performance
  • Performance evaluations and objectivity
  • Probation and extension provisions
  • Promotion practices
  • Reporting off-duty injuries requiring medical attention
  • Sick-leave use and abuse
  • Wellness and fitness standards and improvement programs

Developing and implementing new or revised policies and rules will not be an overnight success. It generally takes many meetings to discuss, negotiate, and arrive at consensus. Understanding the need and having a common desire and objective are very beneficial.

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Public trust is paramount for public safety to perform its work. Where else in government or business can employees run into a citizen’s home and care for injured individuals, generally without consent to act? Based on the rights given to us, building or re-emphasizing public trust is crucial. Nearly everything we can do to instill public trust improves our ability to better serve the public and improve public relations.

It cannot go without saying that many agencies have already taken positive and proactive steps to accomplish these objectives. Based on the regular and negative media coverage, it appears as though we can still do better.

Developing and implementing policies and rules that govern public safety behavior can greatly assist us in meeting those objectives.

Peter BryanPeter Bryan has spent 37 years in public safety, including 27 years of public administration in fire chief and chief officer positions.  He is the owner and CEO of a consulting firm specializing in new construction and development.

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