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Building Back Trust in Government: A Few Easy First Steps

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

By Amanda Wang Valentine
March 21, 2021

COVID 19 highlighted an issue that has been around for decades: the growing distrust in institutions, especially government. There are historical and valid reasons for this distrust that I won’t address here.

However, I’m a constituent who has had to navigate government agencies for everyday needs, from licenses to occasional business obligations. I’m also a former government fellow who specializes in rapid change management. I’ve been on both sides. If you’re wondering how we have come to a place where private businesses are trusted more than the government, I have some ideas. And might I propose some small, simple steps to start rebuilding trust in government?

As a change management consultant, I often deal with scenarios like this. Executives have decided to implement a significant change, such as rolling out a new process. Frontline staff must adopt this new process—one that they didn’t choose, nor did they have any influence over its design. This scenario reminds me of how government can feel to a constituent, like myself. We all have to interact with the government. Like those who had no choice but to adopt the new process at work, we don’t have an option either. We have little control or influence over what we experience with government agencies.

Over the last year, as a constituent, I’ve had many interactions with government agencies at all levels. There have been some excellent interactions. However, our brains recall bad experiences more easily than good ones. That means that between correspondence full of technical jargon, unanswered calls, the difficult-to-navigate websites, uneven service and inconsistent answers, the experience has felt primarily frustrating. I didn’t always finish the interaction knowing the next steps. I felt somewhat powerless. Imagine this same experience multiplied over the country, over the years. It’s the perfect storm not to engage. And in that vacuum of disengagement grows distrust.

When organizations are struggling with adopting a complex change, they might bring in someone like me. I simplify how the change is rolled out. This increases the speed and number of people adopting the new

process. Why does simplification speed up engagement? When people start an unfamiliar process, they don’t know what the next steps might be. In this unknown environment, the brain’s default is to be stressed.

Stress makes it harder to pay attention to current tasks, as well as harder to engage. For most, government processes are unfamiliar and therefore stressful. This creates a considerable barrier to engagement. If the government’s end goal is to rebuild trust, the first step would be making it easier for constituents to participate. This means designing government interactions with constituents’ level of understanding in mind.

One component of this is behavioral design, which is why it’s so easy to sign up and use Instagram or to get car insurance. It can also be applied to process-driven entities, like the government. Governments could design an onboarding process for constituents that focuses on making it easy to get started and feel immediate success, which then makes users more likely to move ahead and stay engaged. Constituents understand what’s happening and what the next steps might be. This allows for trust to rebuild.

This isn’t about a technology overhaul or process redesign. That’s expensive and hard. Start small. Perhaps start with a suggestion that takes no budget and is in the agency’s control. The average literacy level in California is third grade, so use language at this level in communications. Simplify correspondence. Start with a non-legal template and cover letters. Include a simplified cover letter alongside longer legal forms that cannot be changed. Then redesign the constituents’ digital experience, bit by bit.

Work up to training staff to communicate differently. Train those on the phone to be clear communicators who adapt to the understanding of the constituents’ level. Using technical and legal terms or acronyms is not communicating at a constituents’ level.

I understand there’s a need to protect the agency legally. In my government experience, there’s a way to work within regulations and make information understandable. Using unfamiliar language—both written and spoken—is friction. It’s friction to equity and inclusion. It’s friction to building trust. It’s a barrier to the government because it is viewed as less service-orientated and trustworthy.

The significant change is really about how the government prefers to address change in one overwhelming initiative. One agency director asked me to train his whole agency to use a behavioral design approach. My approach to change management starts small and is iterative. The director didn’t want that. He requested significant and immediate.

Recall the last time you learned a new skill. It took a while to get started and become good. That’s precisely how simplifying communications and making constituent interactions more accessible could be rolled out.  Small steps build change and reputation.

It’s time to rebuild trust, one small change at a time.


Author: Amanda Wang Valentine is the founder of enHone, a unique framework for rapid organizational change and tech adoption. Prior to this, she was a FUSE Fellow with LA County.  Amanda spent a long time in tech, where she held roles from COO, advisor and co-founder to business development. Amanda began her career as a financial analyst with Turnbull & Partners/Goldman Sachs Australia and ABN AMRO/Fortis. More at https://www.linkedin.com/in/amandawangvalentine/

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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