Rebuilding Trust in Local Government: El Paso's Unified Leadership and Messaging in a Crisis

BY STEPHEN GOLDSMITH and MATTHEW LEGER • June 8, 2022

Local officials influence conduct in their cities in diverse ways; they tax, legislate and regulate. They invest in infrastructure, can declare states of emergency and, when necessary, authorize legal use of force. In addition to all of these methods they use words—officials encourage action and present facts that should drive behaviors. Words, narrative and communication can produce the broadest effect, but only if those who hear them trust the speaker.

In October and November of 2020, El Paso, Texas had one of the nation’s highest coronavirus infection rates. Media stories portrayed overflowing hospitals, mobile morgues, and prison inmates moving the bodies of lost loved ones, painting a grim picture of the crisis on the ground. At the time, public officials across the city, state, and nation struggled to coordinate a public messaging and communication strategy for sharing information with the public. In El Paso, the two highest elected officials were at odds about strategy and would hold separate press conferences with conflicting messaging and guidance to the community. This led to confusion among residents, as well as business and community leaders.

Trust in local leadership was quickly dwindling.

After a runoff election in December 2020 Oscar Leeser, who lost his mother and brother at the peak of the crisis, assumed office in January 2021. Leeser had previously served as mayor of El Paso from 2013 to 2017. Coming into the role in 2021, Mayor Leeser saw the need to unite the city’s voice and leadership to improve pandemic conditions in El Paso. As he prepared to take office, he formed an alliance with County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, and they coordinated with key stakeholders across the city, including the state and federal delegations, local area hospitals, city manager, county administrator as well as the chief medical officer and others to begin uniting the city’s pandemic messaging and strategy. In doing so, Mayor Leeser had established a cross functional team that worked together to ensure residents would receive consistent, timely, accurate, and actionable information from his first day in office.

The cross functional team standardized their approach to public communications. They would meet privately as a group to collect and organize key information and determine messaging before making public statements. The Mayor and County Judge held 20-minute weekly press conferences where they served as the single, unified, consistent public voice, and local media stations helped spread the message. They offered succinct briefings that gave residents the essential information they needed to protect themselves and their loved ones. “When communicating in a crisis, it is important that we don’t give the media or the public the task of listening to an hour-long press conference and decide for themselves what is most important.” said Mayor Leeser, “Be succinct. Give everyone the information they need to know quickly so they can get back to their lives.”

As elected leaders with familiar faces, city leadership felt it was important that constituents heard directly from them. “Familiarity with elected officials is important.” said Estrella Escobar, Mayor Leeser’s Chief of Staff. “Local residents don't often know their local public health director, but they certainly know their mayor and county judge. In times of crisis, you want familiar faces leading the way.”

To ensure consistency in the data being shared, the El Paso’s leadership worked with their IT department to build a COVID-19 dashboard, shown below, that empowered the leadership team to speak from a single source of truth. By making the dashboard public facing, the media and residents could also see for themselves what was happening in the community and could hold leadership accountable to their words. “We gave constituents a unified front,” said Mayor Leeser, “and that was enabled by everyone working together and communicating using the same set of data. This was key in earning the public’s trust.”

El Paso COVID dashboard showing very high rates of infection in the city

In response to this unified messaging and leadership, the community rallied together to shift the COVID tide. “Everybody wore masks, hundreds of thousands lined up to get their vaccines, the community did what needed to be done,” said Mayor Leeser, actions that were above and beyond any state or local mandates. Fast forwarding to today, El Paso is the first city in Texas to reach herd immunity. As of May 17th, 81% of El Paso’s nearly 800,000 residents aged 5 and up are fully vaccinated, and 99.9% are partially vaccinated. “El Paso went from the worst in the country in terms of infection rate to the best because they believed in their leadership.” said Escobar, “We really relied on our residents to get the job done, but we needed to earn their trust before they could deliver for us.”

As an added bonus, according to Mayor Leeser, more companies than ever before are interested in investing or reinvesting in El Paso; “After seeing how we managed COVID, businesses have faith in our city’s leadership and residents. They know with confidence that our city can withstand and be resilient against some of the greatest challenges we will face moving forward.”

El Paso’s pandemic story is the perfect example of Mark Moore’s Strategic Triangle. Through unified and consistent messaging, El Paso leadership was able to boost the city’s operational capacity, which in turn increased a sense of legitimacy and support from the public, which in turn generated public value in the form of improved pandemic conditions. Mayor Leeser, County Judge Samaniego, and their staffs were able to rebuild trust with their constituents during one of the most politically contentious and polarized events in recent history. El Paso should serve as a model for local leaders looking for new models of trust-building governance during these challenging times.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

Email the author.

About the Author

Matthew Leger

Matt Leger is a Research Assistant for the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center. He has a diversity of experiences in research across the public and private sectors, as well as in academia with a primary focus on understanding how technology can be used to help address some of society’s greatest challenges. Matt has worked with the Smart Cities Strategies team at the International Data Corporation (IDC); the NYCx team in the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer; and at the research institute CTG-UAlbany. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration both from the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany in Albany, NY.