The Hard Work of Restoring Trust in Government

Countering the public's cynicism and mistrust starts with honest, open communication.
November 5, 2014
By Elizabeth K. Kellar  |  Contributor
Senior Fellow with the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and director of public policy for the International City/County Management Association

Americans are hungry for straight talk. Election season has brought a barrage of campaign ads, reminding the public that much of what they see and hear is misleading or worse. And sometimes politicians lean so much on the legality of their actions that they forget their common sense.

Virginia, a state that prides itself on good government, is still reeling from the conviction of former governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on 11 counts of corruption. The former governor defended his actions by saying it was perfectly legal in Virginia to accept lavish gifts.

What can government leaders do to counteract the cynicism and mistrust? Yes, ethics laws can be strengthened, and that will probably happen in Virginia. Still, creating trust in government will take more than new laws. Trust begins and ends with open communication and a high standard of integrity. Citizens want a fair deal, high-quality services and clear, timely information.

Take Ferguson, Mo., and the ongoing turmoil after unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. In a crisis, it is essential to get the facts out to the public as quickly and completely as possible. But good crisis management alone is insufficient.

Police-community relations do not break down overnight, and the roots of distrust are often found when residents feel alienated from others. A YouGov poll conducted in August after the Ferguson shooting found dramatic differences in the way Americans saw the incident. Seventy-six percent of African-Americans saw the shooting as part of a broader pattern, while only 35 percent of white Americans held that view.

In this case, the perception of African-Americans is supported by an analysis of federal data published by ProPublica in October. ProPublica reported that young black males were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts. While more white officers were involved in all fatal shootings, 78 percent of those killed by African-American officers also were black.

What can be done to prevent more situations like Ferguson's? More than ever, government leaders need to review policing policies, procedures and practices to ensure that biases are not perpetuated against any group. Having good data also helps inform leaders of issues that may need attention. Community-policing strategies start with police officers getting out into neighborhoods to get to know people personally, attending neighborhood meetings and partnering with residents and local businesses to solve specific problems. Community policing also means building relationships between the police and other departments: Just getting a streetlight fixed can be an important step in making a neighborhood feel safer. With the commitment of top leaders, a disciplined effort and an investment in shoe leather, trust can eventually be restored.

In a Gallup poll released in September, respondents reported that they had more trust in their local governments (72 percent) than in their state governments (62 percent) or the federal government (43 percent). That's a pattern that's held for many years. What may be more surprising, however, is that only 59 percent of the respondents said they trusted the "American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country."

When Americans trust neither government nor each other, public leaders have their work cut out for them. The best place to start is with a little straight talk.