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In Government We Don’t Trust

People have gradually lost trust in government. How can public leaders get it back?

Nearly a decade ago, Alabama’s Gov. Bob Riley was supporting a measure that would have cut taxes for the less fortunate of the state’s population, and raised taxes for the more fortunate. The increased revenues that would have accrued as a result were intended for education.

The state Legislature passed the measure, which then had to be approved in a referendum vote by the citizens of Alabama. The state’s business community was in favor of the proposal, believing that better education was a key to Alabama’s future. A variety of groups -- some from outside the state -- were against it. After a contentious, three-month campaign on the so-called “tax and accountability” package, the measure was defeated resoundingly by a 2-to-1 vote.

This may be the saddest story of all those we’ve heard about state government over the last couple of decades. And here’s why: The people who would have most benefited -- the folks who would have paid less taxes for a better education -- came out against it. When we spoke with Riley a few months after the vote, he told us that the problem was that the citizens of Alabama simply didn’t trust the state, and so if state leaders were for it, they mistrusted it.

We bring this up now, because this tale powerfully demonstrates the importance of trust in government. That’s a commodity that appears to be increasingly in short supply. As academics Xiao Wang and Montgomery Van Wart wrote in a paper a few years ago, “The decline of trust in government since World War II is frequently considered one of the most important political problems of our time.”

Why is this decline in trust happening? We certainly don’t believe that city and state governments have actually become less trustworthy over time, notwithstanding perceptions. Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University, has one notion that makes a lot of sense to us. He believes the constant barrage of information has contributed to the trend. “People don’t like politics, and now it is on the news 24/7. A generation or two ago, they didn’t see that,” he says. “Maybe government has always been doing things people wouldn’t like, but they didn’t see it back then and now they see it.”

Whatever the actual cause, what’s a city, county or a state to do? One effort that’s been made by many governments is to encourage citizen feedback through a variety of forms. The idea is to get buy-in from taxpayers and to convey a sense that the government really cares about what citizens think. Transparency, too, is often cited as a way to engender faith.

But both are tricky. When citizen feedback isn’t acted on in a way people can see, it can create more disenchantment than warm fuzzy feelings. As for transparency, “Open government through transparency and participation can lead to increase in trust,” says Professor Thomas Bryer, director of the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management at the University of Central Florida. The professor cautions that transparency needs to be done in a way that citizens can understand and in a way that allows them to feel that their input is relevant.“If we invite citizens to the process, but don’t give them the tools to make meaningful contributions, we may harm their trust in government.”

Maricopa County, Ariz., is one of the few places we’ve come across in which improving trust in government is a clearly pronounced goal. County Manager David Smith acknowledges that it is a “daunting task, because of the amount of skepticism out there.” But he believes it’s a critical effort nonetheless.

There are, however, no silver bullets. “It is about the totality of committing to that effort,” he says. “You’re not going to have one or two game-changer strategies when you are dealing with a population of 4 million people. It will have to be a number of things over a long period.” Trust in government, he adds, “is one of those things that take 15 years to build up and 15 minutes to undermine.”

The county’s strategic plan outlines a number of approaches to make that 15 years of building as beneficial as possible. They’re not all going to be easy. In fact, some require faith in the power of so-called “stretch” goals. The strategic plan calls for empowering “employees to take risks, embrace change and make improvements.” That said, the basics of the program include:

  • Increasing visibility. The idea here is to make sure that citizens are aware of the many services the county is providing for them. This includes finding opportunities for leadership to participate in local and regional community events and to provide media training for leadership and the staff.
  • Expanding public engagement. The county plans to redesign its website to focus on services, not departments, thus adding more to the public’s understanding of what the county is really doing for them. What’s more, the strategic plan calls for finding more effective ways to solicit citizen participation, including the simple notion of holding informal board meetings throughout the county at night -- when taxpayers can actually attend.
  • Comparing efforts. Smith and his colleagues are focused on transforming the organizational culture in a way that benchmarks the county against best management practices utilized by other public and private organizations.
Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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