Friday, May 27, 2005 | Along with a new mayor, San Diego could use a psychologist. Like partners in a bad divorce, the city and its public stopped communicating a while back – and now they stand divided by court cases and a chasm of distrust. If there’s anyone who knows the value of good communication, it’s Dan Yankelovich, a nationally known pollster who made a 40-plus year career of monitoring the public mind and innovating ways to better comprehend its innermost hopes and fears. His firm, Viewpoint Learning, founded upon his move to San Diego a few years ago, specializes in developing dialogues to help business and public policy organizations understand the public on topics from land use to good governance. Yankelovich talks about taking time, facing facts and bridging the disconnect.
What brings an east coast man such as yourself to San Diego?
You don’t appear to have slowed down much – starting up a new firm, taking an active interest in city politics …
Well, I’m living here, I’m a citizen here, I’ve come to love the city. And I think there are a lot of people like myself who are from the outside world who are in a way underutilized because we bring a certain diversity of points of view and experience.
With your experience, have you ever considered running for an office?
Never. I’m a private person. It would be difficult for someone who’s a private person to live in that public arena. I enjoy the political process. I think it’s fascinating. I think that I have a point of view that is useful because it’s a sympathetic understanding of the public’s position and that’s something that political leaders don’t know and have to know.
What do your dialogues do that traditional polling doesn’t?
Well I’ve been in the public opinion poll field and each has their own place. Polling is a superb way of gauging public opinion after people have made up their minds about an issue. But on complex issues, issues where people haven’t made up their minds, polls don’t give you as good a picture. And that’s why I’ve developed some more qualitative, deliberative techniques of dialogue and inquiry to get beneath the surface of people’s thoughts. Fifteen minutes and 8 hours is the difference between a poll and a dialogue.
If you were to do dialogues in San Diego right now, what would you expect to find on the public’s mind?
First of all, there’s a lot of mistrust. One of the things that the city doesn’t know, is are people reluctant to pay more for services because they just don’t want to pay more, or are they reluctant to pay because they don’t trust the way the money will be used? That’s a big difference, isn’t it? That’s the kind of thing that you can find out through dialogues. And you can also find out, what are the conditions for building trust, what would people have to do? It would be more than just say “trust me.”
What kind of characteristics does a San Diego leader need to address the trust deficit?
First, a certain kind of ethical strength. Very tough decisions have to be made, and I think you need somebody with a specific background who’s willing to take the heat and make the tough decisions. Nothing is harder than give-backs. If people are being asked to give up benefits that they received with the full face of confidence that the negotiation was serious and the commitment was there, they are going to be full of anger and resentment. So it’s up to the leadership to shape a package of sacrifices where everybody gives up something that is tolerable and knows that it’s fair. And then I think you need somebody with integrity who can talk straight and level with people. Fairness and toughness are the keys. And we haven’t had either. So those are new qualities in San Diego leadership for the future.
Is it your impression the San Diego population has conflicting interests that will be problematic for new leadership?
Part of the role of the dialogues is to get behind people’s wishful thinking and to have them confront reality. There’s a lot of wishful thinking. But once you begin to dig into these issues you begin to find there’s a tremendous amount of common ground. Every time we do these dialogues in San Diego and in other places, we are astonished and the participants are astonished at how much they have in common. I’m not worried about the population being too divided to come to decisions. I’m more worried about the wishful thinking, about the ability of a leader to get people beyond the wishful thinking.
How can communication between officials and the public be improved?
I don’t know what the present forms of communication are. I think that there is a disconnect, a communication gap. Leaders don’t know what the public voice is, and haven’t frankly been very interested. Well now you have a situation where the public cannot be an afterthought. They have to be a player.
Does the public understand the need for unpopular measures such as tax increases, pay freezes and pension cuts to help out the city’s finances?
No, they do not understand. We have not reached that stage. I was talking the other day to some very thoughtful leaders – not elected officials but people who are wise – and it was their view that the city cannot avoid bankruptcy. And I think they may be wrong. But I think that bankruptcy and its implications are not yet real to the public, it’s not real to the unions, it’s not real to the leadership, and it is a real possibility. So part of the role that the leader has is to level with the public. And people can face the truth – it’s the truth they want to face, not burying their heads in the sand.
If you were mayor, what would be the first thing you would do?
In the first couple of weeks taking office, you have a certain honeymoon credibility that you may not have later. You can’t be blamed for the problems because you’re new. So it seems to me that you have to say to people, “Look, you elected me, one of the reasons you elected me was to level with you and to take some initiative in dealing with the city’s problems. We’re all proud of the city, we all love the city, but we know it has serious problems and it’s a lot easier to face the problems at this point, than not to face them. I as mayor would prefer to find a road that doesn’t involve bankruptcy. And here’s what I think we have to do to avoid it.”
– JESSICA L. HORTON, Voice Contributing Writer