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Publication: Public Administration Quarterly
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 17635
ISSN: 07349149
Journal code: SRP

As the inaugural article in the Public Administration Quarterly series on "Resilient Governance," this essay argues that one key to creating resilient governance is promoting civility and discouraging incivility. Why start with civility? Many values influence the performance of public servants other than the traditional notions of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, both of which are increasingly stressed in an uncertain economic environment. The challenges to the commonweal resulting from incivility are clear. Frequently this incivility goes unchecked; it then surfaces in the form of violence. Seemingly random acts of violence can endanger any free society. For example:

1. Incivility in politics was brought to the forefront as the nation mourned in the days and weeks after the shooting spree in January 2011 by Jared Lee Loughner that killed 6 and injured 13, including the serious head injury to Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. While this incident occurred in Tucson, it could as easily take place in your hometown next time. The Pima County Sheriff, among others, argued the ideological incivility of campaign posters with a gun sight over Giffords' congressional district was partly to blame, while others stressed inadequacy of mental health services, a source of incivility in public places as well as a serious contributor to political threats (Quinn et al. 2011; Lacey et al. 2011).

2. Incivility in our communities is manifest in bullying (Samson 2009). In a Massachusetts case, 15-year old Phoebe Prince, a recent Irish immigrant to the U.S., took her own life after what has been referred to as "months of merciless and sometimes violent bullying." Nine teenagers were criminally charged in this case (McGreal 2010). There is a good chance that someone in your hometown has done the same thing, yet escaped the international spotlight shown in this instance. The spotlight is international because this type of incivility with corollary suicide is a topic of public concern worldwide (Brunstein et al. 2010; DeMartino et al. 2011).

3. Incivility in the workplace is as rampant as bullying among our youth, and is widespread in public organizations (Vickers 2006). A Zogby International survey report showed that 37% of employees have been bullied in the workplace, while 62% of employers do nothing or make the situation worse by their response when acts of bullying are reported (Workplace Bullying Institute 2008). Employers face this difficulty because behaviors range from minor slights to more sinister acts, or are of ambiguous intent. As with school bullying, it is not necessarily easy to recognize the offender until events escalate.

Incivility - indicated by lack of respect for authority, intolerance, and disconnectedness - consists of a wanton disregard for the collective interest, and exhibits itself in a range of public behaviors both large and small. The phrase "going postal" is well recognized in American culture, but workplace violence did not begin or end at the neighborhood post office. For example, public concerns have swirled around violent events at a smattering of schools and college campuses. Columbine High School (fourteen dead, twenty three wounded on April 20, 1999) and Virginia Tech (thirty three dead, twenty three injured on April 16, 2007) serve as exemplars, yet this is not simply about violent tendencies or poor American gun control laws. Similar incidents took place in the tiny town of Tuusula, Finland (nine killed on November 7, 2007) and Dublane, Scotland (eighteen kindergarteners killed on March 13, 1996). Such violence even entered the peaceful Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, leaving five school children and the gunman dead on October 2, 2006.

Incivility does not need to ensue on such a grand scale to create serious problems. Specifically, "Microinequities are the subtle putdowns, snubs, dismissive gestures, or sarcastic tones that can undercut employee performance and encourage employee turnover" (Cherng and Tate 2007, 1). The term "microinequities" dates back to 1973, developing in the culture of challenge pervasive around the time of Minnowbrook I. It references incivility rather than inequality, income inequality, or social equity. While interest in social equity may be stronger now than during the 1950s and 1960s, the basic sense of civility is quite weak. There is a continuum of uncivil behavior ranging from ignoring people and overt rudeness toward bullying, threats of violence, minor violence, and major violence. Reducing microinequities would likely minimize the process of escalation that occurs when people routinely "get away with" minor types of incivility. While violence begets violence, it frequently starts with a lack of basic respect and civility. One example of the collapse of moral expectations within society comes from the words and actions of activists who claim they are "pro life" while condoning the harassment and even murder of family planning physicians and staffers at clinics and in their homes.

The opposite of incivility is maintaining a sense of respect for others and expecting the same in return. It is moving back toward the days of "please" and "thank you", saying "good morning" when you pass someone on the sidewalk or in the hallway, and accompanying daily life with supportive expressions and gestures. It may involve a fair day's wage for a socially agreed upon amount of work. It certainly involves respect for our differences, and establishing the notion that we can agree on the basics of social life without needing to agree with all of each other's ideas and opinions. Therefore, we see that incivility has deep roots in the personal, economic, and sociocultural realms. Stress at home and in our schools spills over into the workplace and the community at large, and vice versa.

The present challenge is that incivility is no longer deviant or pathological - it has become normal in the institutions of our profession and society. Four brief examples illustrate our meaning:

1. American diplomacy has moved from the days when President Ronald Reagan referred to the leader of the Soviet Union as "Mr. Gorbachev" to President George W. Bush nicknaming reporters and referring to world leaders in public addresses as "Vladimir," "Tony," and "Steve", and also startling German Chancellor Angela Merkel by approaching her from behind at a G-8 Summit to unexpectedly give her an unwanted shoulder rub (CBS News 2006).

2. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that belittling the arguments of an opponent can be grounds for judicial sanction, responding to the frequency of rudeness that lawyers are displaying during litigation (Keating 2008);

3. State legislatures increasingly resemble Civil War zones more than bodies for making collective decisions in a civil manner (Rosenthal 2005); and

4. Incivility among public-sector employees is indicated as "positively associated with greater perceived psychological distress and thoughts [about] leaving the organization" (Bandow and Hunter 2007, 215).

Incivility must once again be made abnormal or pathological. This will not happen over night or without serious intent. Violent incidents have occurred in restaurants, office buildings, post offices, schools, gas stations, city halls, local parks, and even prisons. Local governments have largely answered these incidents through emergency response teams and tighter security; these are straightforward actions where productivity is measured by response times or number of incidents handled. Eagerness to create and meet these types of performance measures (i.e., the pursuit of efficiency as the core goal), while important, distracts public agencies from addressing the core causes of incivility such as violent video games, anomie, a lack of good mentoring, etc.

Many possible causes lie outside the direct control of individual government agencies, and thus addressing these factors may cross administrative silos, units of government, or even sectors (public, private, non-profit) - tasks historically considered unsuited to bureaucratic structures. Nevertheless, the increasing occurrence of shocking violence by first-time offenders offers reason for proactive policies to reduce public incivilities. Extensive human resources research documents the economic impact on workplace productivity and employee turnover. One report in Public Personnel Management states clearly that office rudeness is on the rise and then explains, "When stress is prevalent, rudeness and incivility become the norm; the effect on companies is the moral equivalent to red ink" with their human capital (Johnson and Indvik 2001, 461).

Government exists minimally to maintain social order and public safety within defined geopolitical boundaries, and thus government is currently letting its people down. When societies begin to go wrong in serious ways, what role does government have in mitigating problems? Does government necessarily suffer the same ills as its people and thus face a compulsion to correct these problems within itself? How might governments approach the challenge of reducing the current level of incivility?

Resilience enters this point in our story because the cure we propose for the illness of incivility is that government can and should actively promote societal resilience, as evidenced in assets to develop and risks to reduce. Gawthrop noted in his discussion of resilience that "the willingness to incur risks and the willingness to be held accountable on the basis of individual motives or intentions" are accepted administrative responsibilities but depend also on public agreement that "mistakes, setbacks, and failures are the inevitable conditions of progress toward any purposeful goal" (1990, 528). With civil conditions varying, he further notes "The history of public administration in America is one of a never-ending swing of the pendulum between safety and risk, prudence and venture, patience and hope, and most especially, justice and love" (1990, 538). Thus, creating resilient governance requires a strategic commitment to developing assets of long durability whenever sentiments are favorable, targeting the risks whenever feasible, and encouraging the development of similar forces external to the government.

This conceptual approach has been applied by non-governmental organizations such as the Search Institute with regard to community development to raise healthier children. They might ask "Why do some individuals grow up in households with severe problems and survive life without repeating these problems?" or "Why do some individuals "succeed' while others in very similar situations do not?" The idea that government can promote protective factors and reduce risk factors within society as a whole fits well with this approach, and thus developing resilient governance can be framed in terms of supporting and developing assets to fight the ills and reducing risks that support these ills. A healthier, more resilient system can then respond more effectively to uncertain future events.

Getting back to incivility in particular, we suggest a stronger commitment to rule of law by government and to an ethos of civility promoted by schools, community groups, the growing e-community, and the media. Those strengths, appropriately developed, would seek to overcome the risks of violence and indifference. Governing structures themselves can contribute to creating or perpetuating incivility, and so the strengths must be developed and the risks reduced both within government and within our communities. The trait of resilience offers a promising and different response to social ills such as incivility and its ensuing violence.

Local governments have increasingly taken the first step as laws enacted since 1990 have introduced new civil controls such as laws against defecating in public places, against panhandling, against public drunkenness, against using cell phones during plays and concerts, and against throwing objects in sports venues (Wolpin 2006). The next step would be to have schools and other community organizations actively educate people and enforce such basic standards so that such local ordinances become mute because of positive social reinforcement of civility. While you might think this is a key job for parents, a quick read of Robert Bly's The Sibling Society (1996) might help you understand why so many adults in our society suffer from arrested development, including the fact that they had poor mentoring and few true "coming of age" moments to validate their own adulthood.

At a broader level, one response to the Tucson shooting rampage has been the creation of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, reflecting Representative Giffords own pre-shooting call to reduce incendiary campaign rhetoric (Breed 2011). Interestingly, a major financial sponsor was Tucson-based health care provider, Providence Service Co., and thus this started out as governance rather than just government.

Our thoughts on this topic are only sketched in this brief essay, yet they involve the need for governments to focus on how they can directly and indirectly promote assets and minimize risks to promote resiliency. This policy approach should be pushed more in the halls of power, and, quite frankly, is similar to the American strategy to confront terrorism (Durodie and Wessely 2002). The relationship between the ill, the asset and the risk allows for responses to move beyond a reaction to a symptom, toward a reflection on the ill and a more reasoned approach to a cure. That is, a focus on reducing violence by increasing the length of time an offender is incarcerated misses the opportunity to consider what has created a preference to act outside the law. Is the law inappropriate? Is there a contrary principle in operation for others, thus creating a sense of injustice? Has an atmosphere of indifference developed regarding the crime and the criminal?


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Author affiliation:


Western Michigan University


University of San Francisco

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