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John Florez: Legislators must work to win public trust

SHARE John Florez: Legislators must work to win public trust

Utah legislators could take a lesson from corporate giants Intel and Johnson & Johnson. When faced with a crisis of public trust, they changed.

Years ago, when Intel got customer complaints about a bug in its microchip, it first tried to downplay the problem. Then its share price dropped and public pressure forced it to exchange the defective parts.

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson got hit with the Tylenol scandal when someone laced the drug with poison and its market value plummeted by $1 billion. In 1986, it got hit again with the same problem, but by then it had learned from its earlier mistake of not having responded to public pressure and quickly ordered the product pulled off the shelves. The company decided it would not sell the product until it could assure its safety to customers. It was later rewarded for its candor by increased profits and customer trust.

Both companies learned that the public's perception about trust in them was critical for staying in business. They also found that by being open about their problems and acting quickly to correct them, they could regain the public's confidence and even increase profits.

Recent polls show voters want broad ethical reform in the legislature. When 78 percent of Utahns would like to see legislators receive ethics training, it says they lack the most important ingredient citizens want from their government — trust and confidence. Some legislators rationalized and ignored the poll's findings, similar to that of Intel's initial response.

Unlike Intel and Johnson & Johnson, which had to respond to public pressure or lose customers to their competitors, legislators don't have that luxury. Because they are a monopoly, they are susceptible to the same diseases from which all government bureaucracies suffer — self-deception, isolation and institutional deafness. And when challenged, they turn to denial and kill the messenger.

It is a disease all individuals in authority must guard against, be they judges, teachers or doctors who have the power to affect the lives of individuals. All too often they are isolated, and because they are in power, sometimes they get a distorted perception of the role they play. Furthermore, they often feel they have to be omnipotent and have all the answers. All voters ask is that they level with them, have a little humility and admit their mistakes.

Legislators need not waste time pointing out how decent their members are and the personal sacrifices they make. The public knows that and appreciates their hard work. However, it's the perception the public has formed over what it sees: taking gifts and money from lobbyists, retired legislators immediately morphing into lobbyists, lack of full gift disclosure, and the glib responses about conflict of interest. As Intel learned the hard way, perception matters. While some legislators are quick to blame the media, it's not the media that created the problem.

Legislators might consider doing what Johnson & Johnson did about its Tylenol disaster. Officials took it as an opportunity to take the time to look inward and determine what they needed to do to overcome the negative public perception that would let them regain the public's trust. Those legislators who try to justify their actions are avoiding making an honest appraisal of their actions and shortchanging the institution the public has entrusted to them.

Some have defended their behavior by maintaining they have broken no law. Though factual, it seems more like a question of what is morally right. And ethics training will not change that. Those moral values are taught early in childhood by parents whose voices remain in one's head throughout life.

Legislators would do well to check their moral compass, let down their defenses, and take the initiative to renew the public's trust in one of our most honored institutions. That calls for legislators to begin listening and responding to the public's perception of what needs to be done to regain their trust. Legislators should stop asking for blind trust. Trust, after all, is to be earned, and when the public begins losing confidence in its leaders, society suffers.

We have good and dedicated people serving in our Legislature who need to take time to look inward and listen to the public in order to regain their trust and confidence. Remember, after all, people live by their own perceptions of reality.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net