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Managing Public Mistrust of Government

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

By Brynne VanHettinga
April 7, 2015

The American National Election Studies (ANES) biennially conducts a poll of electoral attitudes and behavior. The ANES survey captures trends in public opinion through a series of questions about trust, efficacy and responsiveness of government. Between 1980 and 2008, the percentage of citizens who believed government benefits a few big special interests as opposed to everyone, ranged from 61 percent – 76 percent. Those who indicated that “quite a few” government officials are crooked ranged from 30 percent – 52 percent. The percentage of citizens who agreed that people don’t have a say in what government does ranged from 29 percent – 56 percent, and those who believed that public officials don’t care what people think ranged from 31 percent – 66 percent.

The ANES survey results follow no particular pattern and citizen cynicism has not generally increased from year-to-year. However, the data indicate a persistent problem with public trust in governing officials and institutions. The consequence of low levels of citizen trust in public servants and public institutions can actually operate to hinder government performance, thereby aggravating perceptions of bureaucratic ineptitude. Public servants are increasingly constrained by strict rules and procedures that are intended to insure impartiality and accountability, yet they are denied the flexibility that enables them to address the individual needs of the citizens they serve.

Brynne - Keeping an Eye on Justice

There are a number of reasons that citizens develop a mistrust of government. Citizens tend to become aware of government action during negative experiences, such as payment of a tax or fine or long waits for administrative services. Citizens are also likely to become aware of government or official action only in instances of failure. This is abetted by a media that thrives on sensationalism. Media stories, such as the latest corruption scandal or the complete breakdown of services following Hurricane Katrina, can fuel perceptions that government is corrupt and/or incompetent. The more mundane experiences, such as roads, schools, water, sewer and trash services, tend to be either ignored or taken for granted.

Not surprisingly, the degree of public cynicism is correlated with general social and economic conditions. According to Evan Berman, in a 1997 Public Administration Review article, cynicism is lower in geographic areas with above average economic growth, lower crime rates and higher educational levels. Voting patterns, an indicator of citizen engagement, also have a socioeconomic bias. In 1990, 86 percent of those in families with incomes over $75,000 reported voting compared to only 52 percent of those in families with incomes under $15,000. Whether governments are more responsive because voter participation is higher has not been conclusively established. However, the pattern of increasing income inequality over the past several decades will likely aggravate citizen distrust.

Researchers who have explored ways to increase public trust in government generally suggest the implementation of a broad range of strategies: greater transparency, engagement of citizens in the decision process through incorporation of citizen input and public information campaigns that inform the public about the good that government does. While governments can disseminate information through their own infrastructures (mailings, websites, etc.), these strategies also call for tactical use of the media. This approach recommends the use of positive press releases as well as developing relationships with print and broadcast journalists. In essence, governments are urged to utilize the same public relations strategies that corporations do. However, in a free democracy, the promotion of government by the media runs contrary to its traditional role as government watchdog.

Trust (or lack of it) runs both ways and some researchers have examined the degree to which political appointees and senior-level public administrators trust citizens. From the time of the Federalists, elites have promoted the notion of representative (rather than direct) democracy on the basis that the “masses” were unqualified to govern themselves. Today, some civil servants are reluctant to promote citizen participation because they regard the general public as being focused on short-term personal gains rather than long-term community interests, as well as being untrained in necessary technocratic knowledge.

Trust is often described in terms of social capital. Putnam has demonstrated the relationship between social capital and civic engagement, as well as a decline in both over the past several decades. This suggests that declining trust in government could, in part, be attributed to declining trust in general and not exclusively to failure on the part of government. While governments can certainly do more to promote trust by increasing transparency and citizen engagement, they may be relatively powerless to address larger social trends that are undermining trust.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of citizen mistrust is the “us versus them” view of government. Indeed, the very notion that public trust should be “managed” implies that citizens can be manipulated into correct behavior in the same manner corporate employers “manage” employees to forego self-interest in the pursuit of organizational objectives. The constitutional premise of government as “we the people” seems to be fractured. Overcoming citizen mistrust will require a long-term strategy and commitment.

Author: Brynne VanHettinga obtained a J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law in 1992, followed by a varied career representing middle and working class employees and families (Arizona and North Carolina), regulating/prosecuting financial entities (Florida) and legislative analysis and lobbying (Texas). In February 2015, Brynne was awarded a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Walden University. 

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