Why Trust in Local Government Should Be Even Higher Than It Is

Far more than the public realizes, innovators are making extraordinary efforts in communities across America.
August 18, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

Local-government officials pride themselves on the fact that their work produces a higher level of trust than any other level of government enjoys. In 2014, 72 percent of Americans said that they trusted their local governments a "great deal" or a "fair amount," even though the trust level for government in general fell to a meager 24 percent that year.

That level of trust people feel for their local governments shouldn't be surprising: I see an amazing level of professionalism that would stir even higher numbers if only the public could see the effort and analysis that their communities' public servants put into improving results.

This was on display in full force last month at the Esri user conference, where I witnessed 16,000 individuals actually cheering about geographic information systems. These new tools are being used by public servants to provide progress in the fight against Ebola as well in their efforts to create sustainable environments, conserve precious water, and identify and treat obesity and diabetes -- to name only a few.

Before the session, I assumed that since the convention was in San Diego a fair number of stressed-out public servants would be making their way to the beach. Instead, packed inside the convention hall were tables of teams working on joint mapping projects or people attending presentations searching for the next breakthrough for their communities or interest areas.

A few weeks earlier, I attended LabWorks 2015, a two-day workshop in London for directors of nonprofit innovation labs, heads of government innovation programs and innovation coaches (yes, it's a real title). Sponsored by Nesta, an international innovation leader, the event gathered over a hundred officials dedicated to change into packed rooms, where practitioners from around the world shared their stories of and strategies for effecting real change in government. And just a couple months ago, in a program I direct at the Harvard Kennedy School, a panel of experts pored over hundreds of worthy contestants for recognition as the year's leading example of innovation in government.

In each of these cases, local-government leaders are not only striving to innovate in their own municipalities but also are putting a tremendous amount of energy into ensuring that their successful programs are replicable by other cities. Just this past April, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched "What Works Cities," an ambitious, $42 million effort to formalize these conversations into a network of learning and innovation based on evidence and performance. Earlier this month, eight cities were chosen from 112 applicants for the first round of the program.

Yes, there are plenty of problems in government: broken procurement processes, obsolete personnel systems, outdated technology, pay systems that do not reward excellence. All of these things take their toll. But through my eyes, I can't imagine another sector filled with so many individuals pushing themselves and their teams, every single day, to find better ways to serve. The public needs to see this effort, to sense the commitment and potential.