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Big, and Small, Ways Government Squanders Public Trust

HOW government should be reformed is the subject of great political debate. Obviously, there's a huge range of opinion on what's wrong and what needs to be done.

Some analysts -- I count myself among them -- think that a lack of proper ''responsiveness'' contributes much to the frustration with government. Modern government is too often unresponsive in the sense that it fails to honor goals and norms that its ''owners,'' the general public, want espoused.

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This is evident in matters large and small. For roughly two decades now, Americans have been saying they think government taxes, spends, and regulates too much overall, and that prudent reductions should be made. Much of the political community has -- until recently, at least -- responded disingenuously.

For example, we have been regaled with stories of big budget cuts, which in fact were budget increases dishonestly portrayed as cuts. The political community decided that a cut in government spending occurred when the rate of increase in the new fiscal year was less than previously projected!

Then, too, politicians have often remarked that ''the people really don't want a cut in government spending -- they just want the other guy's programs reduced.'' True, most people look more favorably on programs that respond to their own interests. But the claim that the public is insincere in its call for reasonable reductions is a subterfuge -- part of a broader unresponsiveness.

It's not just in large policy matters that modern government has forfeited some of the trust it needs. The biggest loss may result from an accumulation of small incidents in which the public's values have been disregarded.

Let me tell an unfortunately true story about a small but offensive action by an agency of Connecticut state government -- not, I should add, my own institution.

The agency in question has issued a manual of ''affirmative action training materials.'' It uses the manual in workshops designed to raise sensitivity and awareness. One part, dealing with sexual harassment, tells a fictional story.

''Once upon a time,'' the tale begins, ''there was a woman named Abigail who loved a man named Gregory. A bridge across an alligator-infested river in their area was washed out, preventing Abigail from crossing the river to see her lover. So Abigail went to a riverboat captain seeking passage. The captain said he would do it only if she (a) paid an exorbitant amount of money, or (b) had sex with him. Abigail went to a rich friend seeking the money but was refused. Then, she went back to the captain and complied with his other demand. Having subsequently crossed the river, Abigail told Gregory what had happened. He cast her aside with disdain. Heartsick, she turned to another friend, Slug, who, incensed at Gregory, beat him up. As the sun sets on the horizon, we hear Abigail laughing at Gregory,'' the tale concludes.

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Participants in the workshops are instructed to ''rank the characters in order of rottenness, with '1' indicating the most guilty.'' Discussion of the reasons for the rankings follows in small-group sessions.

Putting aside the bizarre humor -- half Playboy and half Little Red Riding Hood -- it's difficult to rank the degrees of insensitivity in this Connecticut government agency's ''sensitivity-training'' exercise. Extending opportunity through real affirmative action and curbing sexual harassment are important objectives. The agency, in fact, mocks and trivializes them.

It also shows contempt for the citizens it's supposed to serve. There are some truly bad characters out there, and all of us make mistakes. But who really thinks that public sensitivity to actual problems can be advanced by a tale so utterly senseless and cynical?

Then, too, consider the hundreds of hours of employee time wasted by the requirement they participate in lengthy discussions of the saga of Abigail and Gregory. Furthermore, I know from a discussion with one participant that employees were openly contemptuous of the authority that had required the exercise, and ridiculed the goals it ostensibly was promoting.

The republic will survive this absurdly misguided attempt at teaching virtue. But public trust is eroded by the all-too-common recurrence of such instances -- which reflects, ultimately, a deep cynicism about the people.

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