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Inspiring Public Confidence and Trust in Public Service

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

By Richard M. Jacobs 
June 2, 2019



With Pew Research reporting that public confidence and trust in government in 2019 is nearing all-time lows, 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of Leadership: Strategies for Taking Charge. In this publication, Bennis and Nanus argued that building trust is essential for leadership effectiveness.

What do public administrators need to know and do, as the ASPA Code of Ethics notes, if they’re to, “Inspire public confidence and trust in public service?”

What is trust?

Aristotle described trust as a virtue—a disposition—evidencing a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of a person or thing. Moreover, trust isn’t a, “Fixed quantity,” of trusting or not trusting, but rather specified by the situation and circumstances while avoiding two excesses: not trusting enough (the vice of suspicion) and trusting too much (the vice of presumption).

Character and conduct: The foundation for building trust

To build trust, Aristotle maintains that a public administrator, for example, must intend to do, “The right thing to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive and in the right way.”

Translating this intention into conduct requires rooting trust in one’s character and exhibiting it consistently. This provides others with a rationale not only to trust public administrators but also public service organizations. Burns called this consistency in conduct, “Transactional leadership.”

This is how trust begins to influence and shape attitudes in public service organizations and beyond.

Four principles of being trustworthy

The former CEO of Baxter International, Harry Fraemer, offers four principles for leaders to root trust in their characters and exhibit it consistently:

  • Become self-reflective. Ask: What are my values? What do I stand for? What’s my purpose? What really matters? Awareness of one’s core values and implementing them in one’s conduct establishes a foundation for trust.
  • Develop a balanced perspective. Note: Many people have strong opinions. Demonstrate care by taking time to understand all sides of the story. This kind of care strengthens that foundation.
  • Have true self-confidence: Learn: Know what you know. Admit what you don’t know. Self-knowledge builds upon that foundation.
  • Express genuine humility: Appreciate: Every person matters. Assist others to become self-reflective, to develop a balanced perspective and to have self-confidence. Humility encourages the development of mutual trust.

“Leadership,” Fraemer observes, “Has everything to do with the ability to influence people.” His four principals unite leaders and followers in:

1) Developing strong teams.
2) Treating members fairly.
3) Communicating trust.
4) Being prepared to handle even the most adverse situations.

These transactions provide the catalyst for building a culture of trust, Fraemer notes, as subordinates realize, “I’m one of those guys. I’m going to make a difference.”

Not only that.

Burns called this influence, “Transformational leadership.” As trust influences and shapes attitudes, everyone—regardless of level or title in the organization—roots it in their character and conduct, demonstrating trust consistently.

Moreover, high performing organizations are characterized by members who trust one another sufficiently enough, Vaill observed, to engage in high-stakes debates regarding what their organization’s purpose—its values—requires if they are to solve problems. Mistrust inhibits this debate, dividing an organization into silos whose members are motivated by parochial self-interests.

Building trust inside an organization that inspires confidence and trust beyond it

ASPA’s Code mentions trust only once, urging public administrators to adhere, “To the highest standards of conduct to inspire public confidence and trust in public service.”

Unquestionably an important aspect of public administration, this principle directs attention beyond the organization. To this end, several decades of research indicate that trust inside the organization comes first if confidence and trust are to be inspired beyond it.

Inspiring trust by rooting it in character and demonstrating it consistently in conduct is one way public administrators adhere, “To the highest standards of conduct,” within their organizations. Then, as public administrators prove themselves trustworthy, their subordinates and organizations, “Inspire public confidence and trust in public service,” beyond those organizations.

Bennis and Nanus observed 25 years ago that success makes trust, “The social glue that keeps the system together.” This outcome takes time to achieve. It’s an achievement, they note, that is, “Hard to gain and easy to lose.”


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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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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