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Developing Trust

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

By Susan Paddock
January 9, 2015

Trust, rather than competence or performance, has become the focus of public attention on government, especially after confrontations with the police in Missouri and New York City. Can we trust the police to act in a professional (and non-racist) manner?  Can we trust the IRS to review applications in a non-political manner?  Can we trust members of Congress to govern for the greater good? Recently, Robert Samuelson wrote that the crisis of the American middle class is not a lack of material gain but rather a lack of confidence in government.

The decline in trust in government is not a new phenomenon, though it has made recent headlines. The Gallup Poll reported that trust in government declined significantly since 2001. Pew Research similarly reviewed the decline in trust; in 1958 almost 75 percent of respondents trusted government while only 24 percent did so in 2014. Trust in all three branches of government declined, with Congress being the least trusted. Even state governments experienced significant declines.

Spaddock janTrust, we know, is hard-won and easily lost. It is not failure itself that destroys trust but repeated failures; not limited performance but performance that does not reflect public preferences; not the exercise of administrative discretion but the perception that discretion produces discriminatory outcomes.

A consequence of the lack of trust is the public’s unwillingness to help solve problems. This is especially challenging for law enforcement, which depends on the public in crime detection and prosecution. In the wake of Ferguson, Missouri and New York City incidents, police departments have been considering how increasing training, changing deployment or improving public information may improve public’s trust in law enforcement.

William Galston wrote that recovering trust involves displaying competence, exercising integrity and demonstrating responsiveness. These are long-term solutions to an immediate problem. Martinez-Mayano et al. present another perspective. Their research of the determinants of trust found that it was the memory of perceived outcomes as well as the expectation of future outcomes by both government officials and the public that affect both groups’ perception of actual outcomes and their consequent decisions or actions. That is, the management of perceptions may be necessary to increase trust.

State managers in a Wisconsin leadership training program developed a model (with the acronym TRUST) of five practices that increased trust:

  1. Tell the truth.
  2. Respect the relationship.
  3. Use everyone’s talents and skills.
  4. Seek understanding.
  5. Use teamwork.

These practices affect perceptions as well as outcomes.

Telling the truth means sharing information regularly and not covering up bad news. In the past decade, governments have depended on websites or social media to share information. This does not reflect citizens’ need to hear news, good or bad, face-to-face from government representatives. Organizations like the nonprofit IAP2 specialize in helping governments develop effective and trustworthy communication processes with the public, and to solve complex problems like the siting of power lines or the improvement of service outcomes.

Respecting the relationship requires holding the other party in high regard. Respect creates common ground and synergy. Jackie Robinson noted:  “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me…All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” That respect goes both ways –from government to public and public to government. Police departments who use citizen academies find that the public in general (not only the academy participants) better understand and respect the duties, responsibilities and challenges of law enforcement, and the police appreciate the perceptions and underlying concerns of the citizens.

Using talents and skills gives people a reason to go outside their comfort zones and to trust others in the process. A police department may tap the expertise of hackers, for example, to help it solve its problems of information storage, retrieval and redaction, especially as the use of video cameras in police cars and on officers becomes more common. Members of a group who believe they are not represented in the governmental actions may be asked to serve on a task force to identify new ways to improve inclusionary processes.

Seeking to understand others involves learning their motivations and expectations, as well as their skills and perceptions. Understanding can happen when individuals or groups are engaged in cooperative research or action projects. Collectively developing a sex education program for a school district, for example, means that professional expertise is balanced with parents’ experience, values and concerns.

Finally, team building involves not only effective communication but also developing a shared vision and goals. Working as a team builds the confidence and commitment of citizens, who believe they have a voice and a vested interest in outcomes.

Building trust is neither easy nor quick, but government agencies can jump-start the process by recognizing the importance of perception, and that engaging citizens in problem identification, solution and implementation develops a foundation for trust that is more enduring than simply relying on professional expertise and best practices.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who currently lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. Email [email protected].

Author’s Note: Thank you to the six members of the Wisconsin management group that developed the TRUST model described in this column.

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