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Engendering the Public’s Trust in Local Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
November 19, 2021

Published reports of surveys have illustrated a continued erosion of the public’s trust in government. In one example, in a 2021 article entitled, “Public Trust in Government,” the Pew Research Center finds, “Only about one-quarter of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right, ‘Just about always,` (2%) or, ‘Most of the time,` (22%).” While reports of trust in state and local governments have shown levels are higher than in the federal government, there are still major trust challenges at those levels as well, as indicated by John O’Leary, Angela Welle and Sushumna Agarwal, in the Deloitte Insights article, “Improving Trust in state and local government.” Increasing public trust in government is important at all levels and must be a major concern for public administrators. Since my career has been serving local governments, this column will focus on how cities and counties can work to improve the trust their citizens have in their governments.

In the arena of public trust, local governments have the advantage of being close to citizens and providing services that have a direct, daily impact. Also, citizens have relatively easy access to express their views directly to local elected and appointed officials. However, that immediate access does not guarantee citizens will be trusting of the city or county. Local council members and administrators must be proactive in order to engender a high level of public confidence.

Foremost, local governments must be as transparent as they can be. They need to openly, clearly and frequently communicate what they are doing. They also need to be up front about situations when they cannot disclose certain things. In communicating, local governments need to use every tool at their disposal. As we know, digital media offers a great opportunity and there must be an organized social media program. In my last city manager position, I sent daily emails to residents to provide timely, regular communication. Cities and counties must not rely on the local media, but rather must tell their own story, as I advocated in a previous column. Much of the interaction that citizens have with cities and counties is in a digital format. Making this as positive an experience as possible is vital.

In addition to telling all the positive actions, local officials must be willing to talk about problems and things that have not gone well. There also needs to be a consistent message across all local government representatives. It can be disconcerting and confusing to the public when council members give mixed messages and are in conflict with appointed administrators. Local leaders must proactively reach out equally to all segments of the community, including neighborhood groups, businesses and non-profit providers as well as all socio-economic and racial groups.

As important as communication is, nothing beats an excellent delivery of services that meets the community’s expectations. The best way for a local government to hold itself accountable to citizens for the delivery of services is through a rigorous outcome based performance measurement system that sets targets for the results of services, measures attainment and reports their level of success to the community.

While it would be impossible to take politics (little p) out of the city or county business, taking Politics (big P) out is critical. As much as possible, debate and actions must be non-partisan. The actions of local governments are not inherently partisan. Unfortunately, many have observed a trend for some people running for local elected office to be motivated by a national political agenda with little interest in local issues. Land use decisions are not based on Democrat or Republican ideology. Neither are decisions on transportation, water, wastewater or storm drainage. Even decisions on levels of taxation and fees should not be based on politics, but rather on the needs of the community.

Finally, a civil discourse is essential. This is especially true for the conduct of council meetings. Council members must be civil with one another and with the staff. Mayors and board chairs need to ensure that all meetings are carried out in a civil fashion and citizens adhere to rules of appropriate conduct.

I believe that local governments can help lead the way to restore a higher level of trust in all levels of government. The actions detailed in this column can make a large difference to increase trust. These are summarized below:

  • Have a high level of transparency and work hard to tell your own story, using all communication means available, especially social media.
  • Enhance the digital experience of citizens.
  • Tell the negative as well as the positive circumstances of city actions.
  • Conduct proactive outreach to all segments of the community.
  • Ensure the best possible delivery of services.
  • Establish a rigorous outcome based performance measurement system and report results to the community.
  • Act in a non-partisan manner and separate political ideology from decisionmaking.
  • Maintain civility in public interaction.

These actions can make an important difference in helping to build the trust in government that is so critical for a highly functioning democracy.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager.

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