Sightline Flashcards are monthly communications strategy tips based on current thinking and research from leading experts. By design, they are short and to the point.

This month’s Flashcard, developed in cooperation with the Washington Budget and Policy Center, is informed by extensive messaging research conducted by Demos.

Flashcard — in-depth:

Breaking Bad Habits

As tempting as it is, try not to reinforce negative stereotypes about government and taxes: “us” and “them,” a bloated bureaucracy, bickering politicians, laundry lists of services, and singling out vulnerable populations.

Here’s why:
Children writing in notebooks in a classroom

  • “Us” and “them” pits advocates against one another and fosters turf-war thinking.
  • There are a lot of prevalent negative stereotypes about government. Among them, the idea of a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy and the image of bickering politicians. Reinforcing these stereotypes diminishes the possibility of a positive understanding of the beneficial role government and public programs play in peoples’ lives.
  • Laundry lists of programs, talking about “taxpayers’ money,” and singling out vulnerable populations are all common messaging habits that suggest people are consumers of government services — that government is merely a vending machine where a person’s only role is to ask only “what’s in it for me” — rather than citizens, participating in a community and building shared prosperity together.

A Better Approach

A better approach is to reinforce shared values, investment, long-term thinking, shared prosperity, and images of citizens contributing to a place we all want to live.

Here’s why:

Shared values and community investments, not line items:

  • Messages about public investment should connect the role of government to important values such as planning for a prosperous and healthy future for all, stewardship of our resources, and the building and preservation of community. Talking about these concepts allows you to remind people of the purpose of government and our common responsibility to build, live in, and provide our children a community that can live up to those values. People want to improve their community “on their watch” and make sure it’s a good place for the next generation to live.
  • Good government and budget messages reinforce the notion of shared fate, in the form of the common good or quality of life, which gives rise to government in the first place. This concept allows messengers to promote and advance citizen thinking, advance notions of mutual responsibility, and discuss why government is a necessary agent in the functioning of society and a tool for achieving better quality of life for all.
  • We should talk about the State budget is an investment in opportunity and health for our families, our neighbors, and our communities.

What is government? Long-term thinking, planning, and management:

  • Help remind people of the unique mission of the public sector, the things we value about it, and its importance as a system that supports important societal goals. In Demos research, when people were reminded of the goals of government and given vivid pictures to reinforce its mission, they readily engaged in discussing government and reasonable, problem-solving approaches to public issues.
  • Citizens and government work together to build a place we all want to live and communities in which we can all thrive. Budget cuts have ripple effects throughout the community, affecting everyone’s economic security and well-being.
  • Finding new analogies and metaphors that can offer more concrete images of what government is and does. In particular, Demos research demonstrated the effectiveness of talking about government as public structures and systems that benefit us all.

Cast citizens and government as good managers of the place we live — and the budget as our investment in that community:

  • The State budget isn’t a “vending machine” for individuals to “buy” services. Messages that reinforce this idea prompt individuals to ask “what’s in it for me?” and diminish the value we all gain from tax money. More powerful messages focus on our shared investment — a commitment to responsible planning for our community. Our public investments have made this state a good place to live and work. Hard times require more investment in our priorities, not less.
  • Reframe responsibility to help Americans see a role for themselves as “citizens,” rather than adopting a consumer stance towards government.
  • Avoid portraying government as a laundry list of services that individuals “buy” with their tax dollars.
  • Emphasize our shared responsibility to maintain the public structures, services and programs that create our quality of life.

We recommend Washington Budget and Policy Center’s Progress Index as an example of this kind of smart, values-driven messaging about the state budget.

See also:

About the Research Project: “How To Talk About Government”

Family shopping in grocery storeBeginning March 2004, Demos partnered with the FrameWorks Institute and other organizations to research Americans’ attitudes toward the public sector. Rather than simply studying static public opinion about government, they wanted to understand how Americans think about government. Specifically, they wanted to learn about the dominant frames or stereotypes to which Americans default when they hear stories about government and how those frames affect public choices and actions. Ultimately, they wanted to know how to best “reframe” the concept of government in order to evoke a different way of thinking — calling up positive views of government that often existed under the surface — building up new perceptions that advance collective understanding and support for public sector solutions to society’s challenges.

The research included a review of hundreds of polls on attitudes toward government, focus groups, hundreds of individual and small group interviews, and a large priming survey was conducted to test new approaches to communicating about the public sector. Ultimately, a set of guidelines for communicators was developed.

Another key organization in the research was the Council for Excellence in Government, which stopped operating in 2009. Most of the Council’s staff and programs then joined the Partnership for Public Service.

March 12, 2009