The Incredibles: How to Serve the Public in the Information Age

If you haven’t seen it, The Incredibles 2 takes place where superheroes have been made illegal for public safety reasons, with the government claiming that the good superheroes do is outweighed by the harm their well-intentioned actions cause and the concern that regular citizens don’t feel they’re in control.  However, a media mogul offers to rehabilitate the heroes.  He asks them, what’s the real source of their problem?  Not the law, he explains, but the perception of reality that led to the law.  Because the average person only sees one side of the story—the bad news that gets onto the news and the damage their heroism causes, they don’t support the work these heroes do.  Because they see what others show to them, like politicians and media organizations with their own story to tell, they adopt the worldview of that viewpoint.

In short, it’s not enough to affect reality if you aren’t also affecting the way others see that reality.  Or, to quote the movie directly: “If we want to change people’s perceptions, we need you to share your perceptions with the world.”

What can we in the public sector, especially executives, learn from this?  On the surface, the problems these fictional superheroes face seem familiar.  We also save, protect, and help citizens.  We also spend most of our time doing good rather than making sure people know we’re doing good.  So what can we do differently to shape perceptions directly?

  1. Government needs to communicate more, and more skillfully, under the assumption that it will have to become its own source of information rather than communicating primarily through the media. The goal is to be trusted by many, but noticed by all.  Often public relations and information sharing in the government is in reaction to an event, a crisis, an external request, or a scandal, rather than being about telling our stories every single day.  In a survey of U.S. federal government employees working on social media, 47% said their agencies had significant room for improvement in how they utilize social media and only 40% thought their agencies had a clear strategic focus on social media. In 2017, one writer noted that while the U.S. agency handling hurricane response coordination had 634,000 Twitter followers, while President Trump had 38.2 million and Kim Kardashian had 54.8 million.  It’s not enough anymore to be able to reach an audience of influential experts with a report, or to get onto the Sunday news.  Every citizen is curating their own media and their own worldview, and we need to be competing for each of them with the same level of skill that any large corporation does.  We may not win the trust of everyone, but we’ll at least be fighting for it.  This may feel like an alien world, but you can turn to your younger colleagues for helping understanding it.  Don't forget that President Trump is in his 70s, so if he can learn the social media mindset, so can you.
  1. If we want citizens’ trust, we need to embrace radical transparency. In a world where people volunteer to put cameras in their homes to be on TV and politicians leak taped conversations of each other, the public expects to see everything.  Every gap in the information they see will spawn a conspiracy theory and every cover-up or spinning of bad news convinces another citizen that we can’t be trusted.  It’s not fair, but if we want to win trust, we need to embrace openness to show we deserve that trust.  Trust takes a long time to build and is lost easily.  The assumption should be that a citizen who doesn’t know what we’re doing, good and bad, or doesn’t understand it, isn’t on our side.  Sacrificing that trust to win one or two media cycles is the equivalent of buying fancy clothes with an expensive credit card.  Executives are taking the biggest risks here, because they are the ones who will see the most blame if bad news gets out, but it's the only way to get to a place of trust that will empower mission and career success.
  1. Finally, we need to take that fictional media mogul’s advice and share our own perceptions with the world. Two-thirds of Americans use social media as a news source and social media adoption is increasing across the globe.  People trust recommendations from friends and family 92% of the time, which is a lot more than how they trust their own governments.  Public servants are their friends and family, so why not use those voices and those networks to change the public debate?The average citizen hears from professional advocates in a very controlled fashion, not from public servants doing the everyday work. We may not bemovie superheroes, but we definitely have secret identities.  Hearing from the actual people helping the public might be much more persuasive, and help citizens discard the easy narratives they hear from politicians and the media.  Our perceptions can help shape their perceptions and help them feel connected to their government again.  So share more of your own perceptions, and empower your staff to do the same.

Why don’t we do this already?  It’s because of the fear that someone will share the wrong thing and cause trouble.  The fear that transparency will create scandals.  The  fear that regular public servants might go wildly off message at any time.  Make no mistake, these are real risks.

But we live in a world where only 1/3 of Americans trust the government to do what’s right and only 18% of Americans trust it to do the right thing most of the time.  Trust in government has also declined across OECD countries.  We live in a world where each person has the power to shape their own reality by choosing what media and information they trust.  We can’t afford to keep using old methods and old ways of thinking in this new world.  Losing the public’s trust will mean catastrophic harm to our ability to serve that public.This is a very different way of doing things, but it might be what successful, trusted government in the Information Age requires.  Step into the spotlight, heroes.

This piece was originally published on Apolitical and can be found here.  Joseph Maltby serves on the National Leadership Team for Young Government Leaders, an association of young leaders across the federal government seeking to educate, inspire, and transform, as well as serve as a coordinated voice, for current and future leaders in government.  Joseph works as on organizational change management issues for a federal agency.


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