Rutgers Survey Investigates Perceptions of Local Government Employees

“Joining government and government services used to be viewed as an honor and a privilege,” said Alan Zalkind, Director of the Rutgers Center for Government Services (CGS) and the Executive Director of the New Jersey Municipal Management Association (NJMMA) as he opened Perceptions of Public Employees: Hire Them or Fire Them?, a session on the first day of the New Jersey League of Municipalities (NJLOM) Annual Conference. “Now, local government employees feel maligned by the public, no longer truly valued for what they bring to the table.”

The session focused on a recent survey by the Rutgers CGS, which was designed to gather information about how New Jersey’s elected officials and public managers view citizen perceptions of municipal workers. Respondents were members of the NJMMA and NJLOM, and the survey was conducted from September 29 to October 31, 2019. There were 234 total qualified respondents.

Before the results of the survey were presented, Zalkind offered his thoughts on government service and its future. “We need to reinforce our local governments with a regular stream of young managers and municipal talent,” he said. “When we became aware of the apparent disdain for government employees, we set out to survey municipal management professionals to determine the depth and scope of that perception.”

Ivonne Roman, a Rutgers doctoral student, presented the survey findings to those in attendance. Among the highlights of the survey’s findings were:

68 respondents were from municipalities between 10,000 and 25,000 residents; 39 from municipalities with 25,000 to 50,000 residents; 38 from municipalities over 50,000 residents, with the remaining respondents falling below 10,000 residents. 57.3 % of respondents were municipal managers, 6.4 % elected officials, and the balance were considered “Other.”

When asked “What factors influence citizen trust?,” an overwhelming 88.14 % responded the perceptions of elected officials, while nearly 80 percent also said the perceptions of public employees and the quality of services were major factors.

When asked to describe the public’s perception of government workers, 59 % stated good, 28 % fair, 10 % excellent, and 3 % as poor. In the positive perceptions, respondents focused mainly on customer service, timely response, politeness, knowledge and visibility as the most significant factors. With respect to negative perceptions, the respondents focused on poor customer service, taxes, laziness, negative news coverage and negative social media as the main factors.

When asked about what factors have the greatest influence on citizen perceptions of municipal employees, the themes of transparency, timely response to issues/complaints, and social media led the field. Similar responses were provided when respondents were asked about what factors have the greatest influence on the perceptions of the services provided.

“Transparency in local government is important,” said Kathleen Monzo, Business Administrator for North Brunswick, following the discussion of survey results. “Regulations like the Sunshine Law and the Open Public Records Act have helped our municipalities be more transparent, directly addressing the need for transparency and reaching to the source of public distrust. Our municipalities must communicate information in a clear and understandable way.”

Monzo also encouraged those in attendance to utilize regular integrity and transparency assessments in their municipalities, while adopting best practices in order to help positively shift the perceptions of government employees.

Greg Bonin, the Business Administrator for Branchburg added that a key to creating a positive perception of municipal employees is that managers must control the process of dealing with citizens. “Residents are rare visitors with only brief encounters with employees on an annual basis, but employees must deal with the combined aggregate of everyone,” he said. “There are simple acts that can improve perception: timely response, politeness, and saying things with a smile.” In the end, he indicated, if employees do not give citizens the information they need, the citizens will make it up, creating potential problems.

Matthew Watkins, Bloomfield’s Administrator, ended the session with similar thoughts. “Municipalities must communicate, regardless of format, in order to change perceptions of government and government employees,” he said. “Managers must manage. Firing public employees is not a solution, and can often be expensive and will only support the negative perception. Leadership is key.”

For the full results of the survey, click here, log into the Members Only area of the NJMMA website. The survey results are found under Various Presentations.