The First Word
By Pahoua Hoffman
The Citizens League, like good government, thrives on public trust
In any new job, it takes time to understand the inner workings of an organization and how it impacts the community. Nearly a year after I started my work as policy director at the Citizens League it became clear to me—after attending many listening sessions with longtime members and reading old reports on citizensleague.org—that our organization’s core business is (and always has been) as much about earning public trust as it is about developing policy.
In 1951, concerned men and women who wanted a better-functioning local government organized to study other municipalities around the country. With rare exceptions, they found that where there was responsible and responsive leadership there was also an active and informed citizenry. Enthused by what they learned and what might be possible in Minnesota, the cohort held “fireside” meetings to galvanize support for a citizen-led organization devoted to helping local and county governments function more efficiently, effectively, and equitably.
On February 14, 1952, nearly 200 people attended a meeting at which they unanimously voted to organize the Citizens League as a nonprofit organization that would be “completely and absolutely nonpartisan, concerned only with presenting the public with facts upon which each citizen may reach an intelligent decision.” Since then, we’ve organized our work around the idea that when invested community members work together they routinely come up with the best way to address their common problems.
“Organizations that work to transcend the day’s political litmus tests and backbiting represent our best hope.”
When my parents and I arrived in the United States as refugees from Laos in 1976, it was ordinary people and trusted institutions that helped my family get established. Growing up, I was surrounded by individuals who were committed to serving others and doing their part for the common good. Having fled a country that did not want them, my parents were very serious about studying for their citizenship exams, taking turns asking each other the anticipated questions. In 1986, my father proudly shared a letter he had received from then U.S. Representative Martin Olav Sabo, who had provided assistance on a passport matter. He could not believe that a busy congress member would take time to help him. A year before Rep. Sabo passed away, I had the opportunity to recount this story to him directly when he attended a Citizens League meeting I’d organized.
Over the past decade, increased political and social polarization has conspired to erode the people’s confidence in its public institutions. According to Pew Research Center data gathered from 1958 to 2017, trust in government remains at or near historically low levels across generational, racial, and ethnic lines. This distrust has trickled down into our daily lives. Instead of banding together to come up with the best ways to move forward, we too often surrender to cynicism, cutting ourselves off from commonsense solutions and out-of-the-box ideas.
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This is particularly concerning because there is a growing list of pressing issues—education, health care, transportation—that affect all of us, regardless of political affiliation. And we’re going to need a reenergized civic infrastructure to respond to challenges such as the achievement gap, the needs of an aging population, and a shrinking workforce.
All of this is why, as I begin my work as the Citizens League’s new executive director, I’ve chosen to focus first and foremost on our roots. We know that effective governance and a healthy society require that concerned members of the public and their elected representatives be presented with unbiased, comprehensive data and a diversity of informed opinion. We know that the public good requires smart public policy. And we know that organizations that work to transcend the day’s political litmus tests and backbiting represent our best hope.
I hope that you, our members and future members, will also find that the Citizens League’s mission, exemplified by our 65-year history and illuminated in the pages of this magazine, is as important today as it’s ever been. Together, we can help rebuild the public’s trust in its institutions and in the public itself.
Pahoua Hoffman was appointed executive director by the Citizens League board of directors on December 6, 2017. [email protected]