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ICMA Career Compass: Responding to Public Criticism

As we advance in our local government careers, we will all face public criticism— sometimes fairly, sometimes not.
How will we respond?

By Dr. Frank Benest
Jul 24, 2023

As a local government leader, you will face at some time or another public criticism. People expect that government will protect them and get angry when they suffer some damage (or in some cases even inconvenience). Given the growing lack of civility, people go beyond sharing their concerns and sometimes attack public officials and public employees. Since local government is the closest unit of government to the people, all of us working in the trenches of local government will experience the ire of dissatisfied residents, businesspeople, and other stakeholders, even if the criticism is not justified.

Understand that Criticism Comes with the Job

Most of us experience a certain amount of joy as local government professionals. We get the opportunity to build community and make a positive difference in the lives of people. However, with these joys comes the reality that people get to criticize their government, especially at the local level, and hold us accountable and demand better performance. It’s part of the job.

In addition, public criticism is one of the primary ways we correct things and make improvements. While it is human nature to react defensively to what we may consider an unfair attack, we leaders need to acknowledge criticism and consider corrective actions to improve performance.

Tips to Cope When You Are Under Fire

Before any Public Criticism:

In addition to acknowledging that public criticism is part of your messy world, you must anticipate the criticism whenever possible so you are not caught off-guard. In your case, you and the other senior leaders should have known there was going to be a lot of unhappy if not angry residents showing up at the council meeting. You could have prepared with colleagues on how you and other city officials were going to respond.

Assuming that you can anticipate the onslaught of criticism, it would also benefit you to get guidance from a few trusted advisors or coaches inside and outside the organization. Just talking through with a trusted colleague what you anticipate and how you plan to respond without defensiveness will give you a measure of confidence.

Finally, since you can count on public criticism at some point in your tenure, it is necessary to develop and have already in place positive relations with the city manager, councilmembers, and key stakeholders (such as neighborhood leaders). By performing well over time and developing positive relationships and rapport, you create a solid bank account of credibility and trust. If you’ve made a lot of deposits into your bank account, you can survive some withdrawals.

In the Heat of the Moment:

Even with a lot of preparation, it is natural to get defensive and respond emotionally to an attack. How you respond in the heat of the moment is critical. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take a deep breath
    If a speaker at a council meeting or other public meeting criticizes you or even attacks you, take a deep breath or two or three. Deep breathing helps you slow down, gather your thoughts, and hopefully keep your emotions in check. In addition to a few deep breaths, unclench your fists. A leader under fire in a public meeting open his or her hands palms up under the table in order to minimize a desire to fight back.
  • Listen to understand, demonstrate empathy
    While you may not agree with what the speaker is saying, listen intently to understand (not rebut). If you can empathize with the person and his or her concern or misfortune, you will be better able to respond effectively.
  • Show some curiosity
    At a typical council or board meeting, you don’t want to get into a give-and-take with a complainant. However, in a more informal meeting or setting, it is wise to show some curiosity about the person’s situation and ask the person to “tell me more.”
  • Acknowledge what you hear
    People want to have their say. Humans need to be heard before they listen. Even if you don’t agree with what a speaker is saying, acknowledge what you hear. For example, “I hear that you don’t think that the city protected your property during the flood.”
  • Present the facts; avoid defensiveness
    When there is great contention, we should try to state what we know. For example, “Our public works crews worked long hours in responding to the damage. The city took some preemptive actions, such as clearing the creek of debris and providing some sandbag stations for residents; however, those actions were insufficient.”