Don’t trust government? Help to change it!

Here’s something that should come as no surprise: Public trust in government and in our political system is low ‒ and getting lower.

Many voters nationally are looking for non-establishment candidates with little ‒ or no ‒ experience in holding office. Confidence in Congress is hovering just above single-digit levels. A majority say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

In Michigan, the Flint debacle is still sucking up public confidence in government at all levels: local, regional, state. Michigan State University’s annual IPPSR (Institute for Public Policy and Social Research) State of the State Survey shows trust in state government is low and has been dwindling for years.

Only one in five Michigan residents says they trust state government “most of the time,” although nearly half say they trust their local governments.

Another new aspect of state government – emergency management – has been around in one form or another since the 1980s, but has only come into broad use in recent years.

The most recent law was adopted by the legislature after an emergency manager law was repealed by voters in 2012. Today, a few school districts still operate under some form of the emergency manager system.

That system’s strong emphasis on balancing budgets and cutting costs above all else has been criticized for ignoring aspects of civic life not portrayed in financial statements – for example, public goods such as safe drinking water and public health.

This has put the practice under special scrutiny since the nightmare of Flint, where emergency managers directed that the city be switched over to an unsafe water source. Moreover, emergency managers by their very definition are undemocratic and take over matters that would normally be under local control.

None of this has helped foster trust in government ‒ and with local, state and national elections coming up this fall, many citizens are mistrustful of the political process itself.

Because boundaries of congressional and legislative districts are redrawn to correspond to changing population, redistricting can be contentious because district lines can be and often are gerrymandered to favor a given political party. Michigan is one of 24 states in which the legislature has primary responsibility for drawing new districts. In Michigan, the Republican Party was in control of the legislature, governorship and state supreme court in 2011 when districts were redrawn after the latest census.

Republicans clearly drew lines to help themselves: In the 2014 election, GOP candidates for the state house of representatives received 49 percent of the total vote but wound up with 57 percent of all the seats. In the state senate, they got 71 percent of the seats.

Voter turnout in Michigan has also been iffy at best. In 2014, 41.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots; two years before, when we elected a president, 63 percent did.

Other states have adopted various measures to increase voter participation: Additional voting days, no-reason absentee voting, mail-in voting, and election-day registration. Our leaders refuse to consider such things, and Michigan’s voter turnout rate is about in the middle of the pack; weaker than Oregon; stronger than Mississippi.
Money is also a source of public discontent with the political process. Nationally, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision has unleashed an unprecedented torrent of political action committee contributions, often anonymous, which raise questions about a political system dominated by the very wealthy. In Michigan, flows of untraceable “dark money” often exceed reported campaign contributions, especially in races for the state Supreme Court.

The Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan in 2015 a grade of “F” for political transparency. Because these issues are so important to the way our state works, the Center for Michigan decided to organize this year’s public outreach campaign around issues of “Restoring Trust in State Government.”

Based on small group “community conversations,” this campaign since 2007 has involved more than 40,000 Michigan residents – the largest such outreach campaign in Michigan history.

It’s clear these conversations go well beyond idle chatter.

State leaders listen carefully to what Michiganders have to say here… and they have followed up on past community conversations in these ways:

  • Approving the nation’s largest expansion of public preschool programs
  • Toughening certification tests for new teachers and improving the state’s teacher evaluation system
    Instituting reforms to save $250 million in state prison costs
  • Stopping the drift towards shortening the traditional 180-day school year

New conversations will be held throughout Michigan during the rest of the year. The Center takes great care to make sure that the range of people participating – in age, gender, race and geographic residence – looks exactly like the face of our diverse state.

Results of each conversation are recorded in secret to provide anonymity – including choice preferences recorded by “clickers” – managed by Public Sector Consultants, a nonpartisan research firm in Lansing. Only after the complete results of the campaign are compiled do the Center’s staff members prepare an annual Citizens’ Agenda report that will be distributed broadly, including to the entire newly elected legislature in January 2017.

Attendance is free. Conversations are scheduled at various times during the week to fit busy family schedules.

Please visit the “Community Conversation Calendar” to find a conversation near you and register today.

If you do not see a conversation near your home, keep checking back, as new conversations are added when booked.

Or, if you would like to bring a conversation to your community, contact the Center’s public engagement team at

To justify the arrogant or dismissive attitudes of some politicians toward the public that elects them, some claim that “the public gets the office holders they deserve.”

The Center disagrees. Our public engagement work is designed to bring the views of ordinary people into the center of policymaking. I urge everybody reading this to participate. It’s an easy and effective way to help make democracy work.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

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Tue, 04/12/2016 - 9:56am
Phil, Do our elected officials think that all these important positions must have one person in charge? The Emergency Manager can not have the expertise to review and analyze every aspect of why a community failed. He may be a great accountant and view the revenue / expense unbalance as the solution. But anyone knows the problem, the solution is where the magic lies. Cutting costs is always the first focus because raising revenue is a much harder challenge. But the long term survival of our deteriorating cities is not in reducing services, it's in growth and increasing the tax base. The Emergency Management team should include a financial analyst, real estate developer, engineer, community planner, significant business leader, and a safety services expert. Now you have six experts that can develop a plan to bring a community back to life. It's not an inexpensive proposition but based on the cost of the Flint debacle, it is better to get it right the first time.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 10:07am
Your forums are great idea and wonderful service to the entire State. How about expanding the idea to allow people to comment by email? For some it is inconvenient to attend, for any number of reason. This can be done with specific issues or by someone just sending in a comment, like this one. You have distributed on line surveys in the past. Why not expand that type of outreach? What about a brief weekly or monthly survey based on what you cover in your stories? Thanks for your contribution to our State. I think you are at the same high level as the Citizens Research Council in a different way, by helping private citizens understand politicians who hide their actions under the cover of minimum transparency and voter suppression. Your Flint timeline and reporting deserves a National Award!
Ed Haynor
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 4:48pm
I agree with Mr. Robinson regarding his comments regarding surveys through email. I seem to recall, Bridge provided surveys in the past.
Brian Hewitt
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 10:10am
A recent news article states: "Michigan governor Rick Snyder insists staff misled him about Flint water." Michigan residents deserve to know who lied to Governor Snyder. It would be nice to find out why they lied to him, too. Will the media allow these career civil servants throw our Governor under the bus? We'll see.
Douglas Stout
Sun, 04/17/2016 - 8:33am
Many thanks to Brian for a succinct and thoughtful comment.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 10:19am
It would be nice if all had to take a test before being allowed to run for any office. The test would include questions to determine how committed a person is to promoting an agenda for the public good as opposed to personal power. It would also include questions to see how good a person would be at communication and group agreement as opposed to strict following of a line. Questions to determine truthfulness and transparency should also be included. Those voting also have a responsibility to understand who is running, what their positions are, and how they will react to a dynamic problem. Our government is not trusted at any level, from homeowner's associations to top Federal officials, because our current two party system and the power of the incumbent seems to produce a vote between lesser of two evils.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 12:06pm
Phil, you position regarding the ethical responsibilities of our local, state and federal governments could not be more authentic. Elected and appointed public officials have a responsibility to serve the "greater good", of the people they represent. It is also the responsibility of the general public to hold those officials accountable. That requires citizen involvement, beyond complaining or writing anonymous email reactions to media stories. Leadership is not a popularity contest, but rather public officials doing the right thing, that will eventually lead to the improvement of the quality of life for everyone. Thank you for the opportunity to respond. Mike Shibler, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools.
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 5:50pm
Mr. Power says, " Public trust in government and in our political system is low ‒ and getting lower." Is it possible that is because the public has unrealistic expectations of what government can do and how responsive it is? It is likely that you will be extremely frustrated if you expect to drive nails with a screwdriver. It is little wonder that people are turning to "non-establishment" candidates. If the usual selection of screwdrivers don't do the trick, try something different. And why would the public expect government, especially big government staffed with bureaucrats, to be responsive? Agents in the private sector are extremely responsive because consumers put unrelenting, severe pressure on those who don't perform. Politicians are much harder to hold accountable through phone calls, emails and elections. And bureaucrats are practically immune to public pressure as the Flint water episode demonstrates. Just how would Mr. Power make bureaucratic government more responsive? He says of Emergency Managers: "That system’s strong emphasis on balancing budgets and cutting costs above all else has been criticized for ignoring aspects of civic life not portrayed in financial statements – for example, public goods such as safe drinking water and public health." What evidence does he have that that is the case? Isn't it the objective of an emergency manager to provide as many public goods as possible within the constraint of the community's resources? Would he rather the community provide itself public goods it cannot afford? What would be his choice? He cites the case of "Flint, where emergency managers directed that the city be switched over to an unsafe water source." Does he seriously believe that the emergency managers switched the city to a water source they knew to be unsafe? Yes, they made a horrible mistake, but that was not due to the nature of the emergency manager law. And yes, it is true that "emergency managers by their very definition are undemocratic and take over matters that would normally be under local control." But it is also true that ten or eleven Michigan communities have been through emergency management (some more than once) and are now functioning on their own. In how many cases does he believe they would have made that transition on their own? He says, "In the 2014 election, GOP candidates for the state house of representatives received 49 percent of the total vote but wound up with 57 percent of all the seats. In the state senate, they got 71 percent of the seats." Does he realize that due to the distribution of Democratic and Republican voters, that Democratic candidates will always get a higher percentage of votes than they do of state Senators and Representatives? Yes, the Republicans did gerrymander legislative districts and probably elected a few more Representatives and Senators than they deserved, but there is no evidence that that made the difference in control of the legislature. To know that, the League of Women Voters and other good government organizations (and the Democratic party) would have to commission a study from the political science department at one of our universities. They would have to draw up "fair" legislative districts, tabulate the vote using those districts and see what results they got. I have done a Google search for such a study and have not found one. It may very well be that Republican control of the legislature is perfectly legitimate. Mr. Power does not know, one way or the other. And he suggests the substantial increase in Political Action Committee contributions raises "questions about a political system dominated by the very wealthy." And yet, a recent compilation of figures by the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago's Booth school of business shows no relation between the percentage of a candidate's contributions that were over $5,000 and $100,000 and their success in this year's primaries. Bernie Sanders had no contributions over $5,000 and yet is a serious contender. Donald Trump had no contributions over $100,000 and very few over $5,000, while Jeb Bush had a high percentage of contributions over $100,000 and is out of the race. Mr. Power says, "The Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan in 2015 a grade of “F” for political transparency." Does he realize there is little or no correlation between these "good government" measures and the presence of corruption in a state? Some states with a complete set are notoriously corrupt while many states without them have a record of honesty and competence. It is a matter of culture and not formall requirements. Past community conversations have resulted in valuable, substantial achievements, but I am skeptical about this year's tour, although I do hope it results in the establishment of a commission to draw legislative districts, a modification of the Headlee amendment to allow communities to escape from their fiscal straitjacket, and repeal of the term limits amendment.
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 10:00pm
With all the people involved in the 'community conversations' I have expected some innovative ideas for addressing the issues at hand. As good as the 'Community Conversation' format is and the great potential, from my experience with 'Community Conversation' both at the meeting and online the structured didn't seem to be one that was designed to draw out innovative approaches to the issues of focus. There is so much emphasis on the need for change in Michigan, I wonder if maybe a testing of modifications in the 'Community Conversation' protocol to encourage innovative approaches from the participants. I for one would be willing to host a "Community Conversation' in my town testing a format that was to encourage participants to offer a diversity of new ideas/approaches to address the issues of focus.