Regaining the Public’s Trust

It’s easy to get lost in the techniques of public management. But for people to have confidence in government, we need to get back to the basics.
by | December 21, 2011

G. Edward DeSeve

G. Edward DeSeve is a GOVERNING contributor. He has served in senior positions in academia, government and the private sector.

Recently, I had a conversation with a serious student of government. He was trying to develop a series of ballot initiatives designed to improve government performance. We discussed the relationship between better performance and getting more revenue for government programs. He said that better performance was important because it promoted more trust in government, and he argued that the lack of resources available to government reflected the fact that people didn't trust government to spend their money wisely. He was right.

Trust is essential not just for obtaining resources but also for making government work effectively. Often, we get lost in the techniques of management and forget about the essential bond of trust between the public and their governments. We focus on outsourcing, performance management, cloud computing and other techniques while we ignore the basics. I believe that there are six factors that are paramount in changing the public's perception of government and regaining their trust:

Honesty: Ethical behavior is often taken for granted until there is a breach. Ethics training in government is like sex education in middle school: Everyone has to take it but most people don't think they need it. Promoting honesty must go beyond mere ethics training. It has to be built into a culture that won't tolerate even small lies or a little bit of cheating. Schools of public policy and management should make the study of what constitutes ethical behavior mandatory.

Efficiency: This is making sure that government delivers "value for money." Producing high-quality public goods and services should be done as inexpensively as possible. All the techniques of private industry should be utilized, and measurement of efficiency should be rigorous and comparative.

Transparency: In my younger years, I wouldn't have included this one. However, if you are trying to gain people's trust, they have to be able to see what is going on for themselves. Perception is often reality, so showing the public what is really happening can inspire more-positive perception. New developments in technology—including geospatial mapping and rapid feedback communications—enable government to operate both efficiently and transparently at the same time.

Accountability: This is simply telling people what you are going to do and then giving them an accounting of how you did. It works at the level of outputs and at the level of outcomes. Many performance-management systems have been tried and found wanting. Often they are seen as something from the outside that is imposed on managers. That is backwards. Performance management should stretch from "the shop floor to the top floor" and should allow managers at every level to demonstrate how well they are doing their jobs. Pride in doing a good job and performance management should go hand in hand.

Good policy choices: These start with good policy-development processes that translate public needs and conditions in the external environment into a coherent set of actionable strategies. Reasonable people will differ on what constitutes good policy, but the electorate knows it when they see it. Again, bringing transparency to policy development and even including the public in developing policies will lead to greater trust.

Positive outcomes: Implementation of policy choices honestly, efficiently, transparently and accountably should produce positive outcomes. If it doesn't, managers should rapidly evaluate why the expected outcomes weren't achieved and take corrective action. Program evaluation has fallen out of favor, perhaps because it was seen as something done to managers, not by them. As with creating an accountability framework, evaluation of outcomes should be in the hands of managers themselves, aided by technical experts if needed.

All of that sounds very simple, doesn't it? If the process were purely linear with no random events, it might be just that easy. However, government is both nonlinear and often random. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was doing just fine managing the city until 9/11 changed everything. It is a great tribute to him and the public workers of New York that panic was avoided and services were quickly restored.

Another element of complexity is that the factors described above have to be executed simultaneously in a dynamic environment. Public servants are sometimes compared to jet mechanics working on the engines while the aircraft is in flight. This may be going a little too far, but feedback from the public can be instantaneous, and change is often the only certainty.

We can't control all of the variables, and the hardest to control is the public's perception of our actions. In 1946, philanthropist Joseph N. Pew Jr. said, "Tell the truth and trust the people." Today, we have no choice but to go back to basics and try to regain the people's trust.


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