Trust in government is vital but steadily eroding. To rebuild trust, governments should first understand the drivers of trust, and then work with an ecosystem where each stakeholder adheres to high standards of trustworthy behavior.
Trust is intangible. It is deeply personal and based on relationships. It underpins nearly everything government does. These statements highlight not only the deep importance of trust in government, but also some of the inherent paradoxes that make it difficult to measure, build, and sustain. For example, if trust is deeply personal to an individual, but government delivers services through a variety of intermediaries from employees to companies to regulated entities, how can government earn the trust of that individual? To solve this paradox and improve trust, government agencies need to understand what makes government trust uniquely complex, and then coordinate an ecosystem of players to overcome those complexities.
April 1, 2020 was unusual because it wasn’t the traditional decennial “Census day,” when the US Census Bureau would officially kick off the Decennial Census.1 Rather, the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut the country down only a few weeks earlier ̶ forcing the Census Bureau to delay enumeration activities for ultimately months to protect its 500,000 field employees and the public. COVID’s impact cannot be overstated as Census data shapes everything from congressional representation to the budget allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars in program areas such as health, education, disaster recovery, infrastructure, and much more.2
But the pandemic wasn’t the only crisis the Census Bureau was facing—the 2020 Census was also being conducted amidst an ongoing public trust crisis in America. Broader trends have eroded trust in the US federal government to a near-historic low of 20% in 2020.3 Moreover, immigrant communities were increasingly eyeing public debate over the federal government’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Managing the Census activity amid such a distrustful environment presented a monumental challenge for the Census Bureau.
The Census team got to work.
Led with trust: The Census Bureau launched a “Trust and Safety” team that included a cross-functional network of partners and experts—both internal and external to the Census Bureau—to mitigate threats to Census Bureau employees and proactively combat the mis- and disinformation around the 2020 Census.4
This team used social listening tools and analytics to identify threats to Census workers or misinformation that could jeopardize the reliability of the count. It collaborated with social media companies to adapt their policies to protect the Census, highlight violations, and take one of the many mitigation actions like content demotion, labeling, or even takedowns. This allowed the Census Bureau to identify trends and be alerted to, and get ahead of–emerging narratives that had the potential to gain traction rapidly, specifically in the online social media environment.
Leveraged trust networks: The Census Bureau realized that partners were vital to ensuring a complete and accurate count. It also realized that its focus on trust could not just stop at large technology companies, but that it needed to get trusted information directly to the public. To do this, it tapped into an ecosystem of tribal, state, and local governments, as well as local partners, including the American Association of Retired Persons, the American Library Association, and Nextdoor, to distribute accurate and reliable information about the Census and educate in ways to avoid potential scams.
The result? According to the Census Bureau, 99.98% of all housing units and addresses nationwide were accounted for in the 2020 Census.5 While this result was impressive amid the pandemic, many groups remain concerned that historically hard-to-count populations were undercounted. This stemmed from these communities’ concerns about confidentiality, how government uses the collected information, and information security. This continued concern presents an opportunity to examine how to develop strategies to build trust and ultimately improve the quality, reliability, or effectiveness of critical government initiatives like the Census.
The 2020 Census story illuminates one of the seeming paradoxes of trust in government: trust is a deeply personal perception, but it can also be heavily influenced—either positively or negatively—by larger socioeconomic trends. Therefore, to improve trust, government should not only communicate to the public, but also coordinate a huge number of stakeholders that deliver government services to them or influence their perceptions.
Building on our previous work of Rebuilding trust in government that focused on public perceptions of trust in government, this article focuses on how government can optimally orchestrate a vast ecosystem of stakeholders to build public trust.
Trust in government is complex and sometimes paradoxical, but recent events from the Census to pandemic response to vaccine distribution have shown just how critical it is to all of us.
Trust in government is complex and sometimes paradoxical, but recent events from the Census to pandemic response to vaccine distribution have shown just how critical it is to all of us.
Aside from a brief spike during the pandemic, the trajectory of public trust in the US federal government has been steadily declining for decades.6 But trust in government is not a newly discovered problem, so why has it been so resistant to change over the past six decades?
Here’s why: There is a mix of complexities at play. Government plays multiple roles. It also manages a wide array of stakeholders. And then, there are wider societal trends that impact trust. Together these factors create a complicated, many-to-many mapping of trust relationships that makes finding any single way to improve trust very difficult.
Imagine the interactions an average person might have with different public services. Constituents might use public transit to drop their kids off at a public school, use the Postal Service, visit the motor vehicle office to renew their driver’s license, file their state and federal taxes, email the local council member about a neighborhood park closure, and much more. All these interactions are with different government agencies, and each is likely to provide a very different experience.
Also, research shows that citizens tend to have greater trust in government entities that are closest to them.7 Typically, people have the most day-to-day interaction with local government. Decisions made by the local government on various issues ranging from education and housing to public safety directly impact people’s daily routines. And citizens are often physically closer to these government officials too, living in the same towns or counties. This proximity generally results in greater trust levels. But the same can’t be said about the federal government, where both abstract services and physical distance combine to negatively impact trust. This means trust depends not just on what the government is doing, but also on “which” government is doing it.
On the one hand, government plays multiple roles, and on the other, it is constantly interacting with different stakeholders. (To know more about these stakeholders, see sidebar “Understanding stakeholders.”) When we think about trust in government, there is a tendency to gravitate toward citizen trust, but there is a whole range of stakeholders who must trust government and that government must trust. Maybe an important question to ask sometimes is “whom to trust?”
These stakeholder relationships are critical to delivering a range of government services. In 2020, for example, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) worked with community partners and activists to test homeless people in Portland for COVID-19 infections.8 The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) enabled Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries to shop online for groceries in 36 states and Washington DC through its collaborations with retail service providers.9 California established partnerships with major social media platforms to drive the state’s COVID-19 public awareness campaign.10
Below are some of the stakeholders that government interacts with. Government’s potential trust issues will vary depending on which stakeholders it is interacting with and how.
Citizens: Public trust in government, especially federal government, has been an area of intense research and debate over the years. In November 2020, Deloitte surveyed 4,000 Americans to understand their levels of trust in the US federal government. The survey findings revealed that citizen trust in the US federal government was the lowest compared to state and local government and other commercial entities. In a follow-up survey in April 2021, more than 6,000 Americans were asked their perceptions of trust in state and local governments in the United States. We found that trust in local government was the highest, followed by state and then federal government.
Rebuilding public trust in government is imperative to help governments deliver on their various missions such as policymaking, regulating markets, enforcing rules and compliance, and protecting citizens. Rebuilding trust in government depends as much on the perceptions of citizens as the capabilities of government. That is to say that governments should work both to improve perceptions of its trustworthiness and the organizational capabilities to actually deliver services, products, and experiences worthy of trust. (Read more in Rebuilding trust in government.)
Employees: Employees are often the face of government for citizens. From visiting the local DMV office to interacting with law enforcement or navigating airport security to using the nearest post office, constituents continuously interact with government employees.
The employee-employer (in this case, the government) relationship has a large role in employee engagement, retention, and motivation. And these parameters matter a lot. For instance, research shows that employees who highly trust their employer are nearly three times more likely to feel motivated by their work and half as likely to look for new jobs.11
Deloitte analyzed the relationships between federal employee engagement and its impact on public trust in the federal government. We found that citizens typically have greater trust in federal agencies with higher employee engagement.12 Additionally, the analysis found that employees’ perceptions of how well their skills fit with the agency mission is one of the most important parameter impacting trust.
This has important implications for governments. Agencies that are struggling with low public trust can invest in human capital management practices as one way of improving public trust. Focusing on employee life cycle events such as recruitment, performance management, retention, and employee experience can help governments evolve a highly engaged public workforce.
Businesses: The relationship between the government and business is two-way. Governments are expected to create laws, rules, and regulatory environment; maintain law and order; regulate the money and credit systems; provide basic infrastructure; invest in R&D; and much more. These activities can help build a conducive and thriving economic environment in the country.
In return, businesses create employment, pay taxes, support social and welfare programs, support government projects through contracts, and support other government activities. The more trust and consistency in the government-business relationship, arguably the more social benefit those businesses can create. For instance, in a Deloitte-Fortune survey, business CEOs said, “Restoring trust in government” should be the most important priority for the Biden-Harris administration over the next two years. Even more important than COVID relief, economic recovery, infrastructure, and climate change.13
Academia and social enterprises: Academia and social enterprises play a vital role in shaping public policy by bringing deep knowledge, expertise, and research to help evolve relevant public policies. Social enterprises can help government pilot public policies and build evidence for what works. The relationship also works in the other direction with government funding a large number of research programs across different scientific and social disciplines.
Since we all exist as part of larger societies, one cannot totally isolate individual perceptions of government from wider societal trends. In many countries, there has been a perceived decline in the baseline level of trust that people have in most institutions or even other individuals. For example, nearly 80% of Americans believe that we have too little trust in each other, and nearly two-thirds said that those levels of mutual trust have been shrinking.14 Therefore, people’s trust in government is inevitably impacted if they trust everything less.
The exact reasons for this baseline trust deficit are up for debate, but some key drivers include social and economic change, growing political polarization, shifting media consumption patterns, and the role digital media plays in the rise of mis/disinformation.15 Many of these trends also impact companies and groups outside government—for example, the 2021 trust barometer report states that trust in information from all available sources is at an all-time low.16 But trust in government may be even more susceptible to these societal trends because of its prominent role in society, especially in a country such as the United States that has a history of distrusting government.17 Take the growing political polarization, for example. Because an individual’s confidence in government tends to ebb and flow depending on whether their party is in power, the growing political polarization trend has caused wider and deeper swings in public trust in government.18
Government has also long been the direct target of many wider societal trends. For example, Professor Amy Lerman argues that a constant barrage of slogans on government inefficiency has damaged its reputation. She states that Americans are so convinced that government programs are substandard and inefficient that they will misidentify high-quality government services as private.19
For all the complexities and dire news about trust in government, there is some good news. Trust is not set in stone. Just as much as scandals and errors can harm trust, it is also possible to build trust. Through careful measurement and considered action, government can build trust with all its stakeholders.
Trust is not set in stone. Just as much as scandals and errors can harm trust, it is also possible to build trust.
The first step is to recognize which stakeholder groups are of most concern. Different stakeholders can have different views of the same agency because it serves different roles or different services to them. Take state unemployment agencies, for example. To citizens, these agencies are retail-like service providers. Fill out a form, meet the qualifications, and receive benefits. On the other hand, for businesses, these agencies may play the role of enforcer, ensuring that businesses contribute their share of unemployment insurance contributions.
Once a stakeholder is identified, their specific concerns can be measured and addressed. Polls, surveys, listening sessions, etc. can be valuable instruments for measuring perceptions of government’s competence and intent. Government agencies can then craft actions that can improve the capability and reliability of government to show its competence or the humanity or transparency of government to show its good intent. On the citizen side, this could mean using the feedback to improve services or designing new ones to address challenges identified by the citizens.
Improving individual stakeholders’ perceptions of trust is important, but it is just one aspect of trust in government. Government relies on whole networks of stakeholders to deliver services to citizens. Beginning at least in the Great Depression and accelerating since World War II, government today rarely delivers services alone; its actions are “interwoven” with other agencies and private industry to get citizens what they need.20
The issue is that the mechanisms of transparency and accountability have not kept pace with the complexity of this interweaving of public and private.21 So, if any stakeholder involved in a process fails to live up to the standards of trustworthy behavior, it is likely to harm the reputation of government as much if not more than that particular stakeholder.22 This means that if government is to be trusted, it needs to coordinate the behavior of an entire ecosystem of players to hold them accountable to the same high standards of trustworthy behavior (figure 2).
Consider any of the financial stimulus programs during the pandemic. Such programs were executed by a combination of government employees, vendors building websites, regulated entities such as banks accepting applications and disbursing funds, etc. For a program to be trusted, each stakeholder had to work to the same standards of competence and intent. If the vendor’s incompetence leads to security breaches and compromising of people’s personal information, or if the banks lack good intent and act in bad faith to prioritize loans to their existing customers, those actions will damage the trust in the program and by extension, government.
We can see direct evidence of these trust networks by examining how employee engagement for government workers impacts the trust citizens have in that same agency. Citizen trust in an agency can be impacted by several factors that touch the individual, everything from their customer service experience to general social attitudes. But an individual’s perceptions of trust can also be impacted by factors that never directly touch them. For example, the employee engagement of back-office staff that never directly interact with citizens can impact trust. Based on our initial analysis, one unit increase in overall employee engagement leads to 0.65 units increase in an agency’s trust score.23 This makes sense intuitively—more engaged workers tend to do better work, and better work gives citizens greater trust in an agency’s competence—but the exact reasons may be more complicated. What this research does show is the strong influence that factors outside of direct citizen-government interactions can have on citizen trust.
Case in point: The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV). Justin Davis, director of Contact Center Operations at the Indiana BMV, faced a double problem: unhappy customers and a nearly 200% attrition rate among employees. To tackle both, he focused on employee experience—improving scheduling, offering more breaks, improving training, and addressing workplace culture issues—to help improve customer experience. “I sat here for a year and listened to the way the dynamic changed in our phone calls from a negative language like ‘I can’t help you’ or ‘I can’t do that to ‘I’d love to help you with that’ or ‘Let me look into that.’ And in our first month, we got a 92% (customer satisfaction score).”24
The challenge for government agencies is that they often have to coordinate trust networks that extend far beyond their own employees. Working through a network can actually help improve trust for government services. Take the wider use of facial recognition in application areas such as air travel as an example. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) coordinated with airlines and airports to deliver the efficient facial recognition benefits to citizens without having the government maintain a large apparatus for capturing and matching faces.25 But while working through networks can help build trust, it also introduces greater risk and variability to the trust relationship. A citizen’s final perception of trust is now dependent not just on government but on the hardware and computer vision algorithms, the airlines that use them, the airports that may own them, other government agencies whose databases need to be checked such as no-fly lists, and so on. It is here that ensuring that all players adhere to the same high standards of trustworthy behavior gets complicated.
So how do you coordinate such a large network of trust?
Measure stakeholders’ trust, understand their values, and then work on building consensus. You can’t increase trust unless you know how trusted you currently are—and why. To gauge this, agencies can use surveys and other instruments tailored to different stakeholder groups. Building on this general understanding of what drives trust, an agency can then explore stakeholder values to see what it can do to move in the direction stakeholders want. Tools such as vTaiwan have achieved some degree of success in this regard. When the Taiwanese government decided to legalize online sales of alcohol, some social groups expressed concerns that this decision could make it easy for children to purchase liquor. To find a solution, a group of government officials and activists started a discussion on the vTaiwan platform involving all parties involved—citizens, sellers, online shopping websites, and the government. In just a few days, they could reach a consensus and agree on a few practices—such as restricting online sales to only a few shopping websites and enabling credit card-only transactions—that can prevent children from buying alcohol online.26 Such digital consensus mechanisms not only help government understand the values of their diverse stakeholders, but, by driving toward consensus, also cuts through the polarizing social trends that can undermine trust.
Define and communicate the mission. Our research has shown a clear link between employee engagement and trust in government. In fact, the strongest facet of engagement on trust is a worker’s perception of how well their skills support the mission of the agency. Therefore, government agencies should not only work to build employee engagement, but should work at clearly defining the mission, how it is measured, linking an employee’s job to the mission, and communicating that to employees again and again. This approach can help build employee engagement and a more cohesive organization, which, in turn, helps employees counter the corrosive factors in the wider trust environment, thereby improving citizens’ trust in that agency.27
Work through networks of real people. People aren’t abstractions. They aren’t even just their email address. They are flesh and blood and live in the physical world. People talk to their coworkers; they hang out with friends. If you want to impact their behavior, you need to reach them, preferably through those they know and trust. For example, in Exeter, NH, the fire department vaccinates senior citizens at a well-known senior center that is a stone’s throw away from the downtown.28 The fire chief runs the program and uses his extensive network in town to ensure doses aren’t wasted. He has recruited neighbors to watch residents’ dogs so they can get a shot and has driven mobility-limited seniors to and from their appointments. When a neighbor said she felt unsure about the vaccine, he urged her to visit the senior center to see what it was like. She got her vaccine the next week. The results have been significant, with New Hampshire having one of the highest vaccination rates and one of the lowest rates of vaccine wastage.29 This approach doesn’t just work for vaccines. These same tactics of working with and through a local community’s social networks can help government build trust on any number of issues from building confidence in government services to countering mis/disinformation.
Reimagine experiences with stakeholders. New technology and a variety of stakeholders create opportunities for government to reimagine how citizens experience services. From single sign-on to login to both your bank and pay your taxes to accessing government services by a personal digital assistant, the possibilities are almost endless. But with so many different stakeholders interacting with government in so many different roles, it is important to align the priorities for all players to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction. For example, suppose the vendor who creates a government website cuts costs on cybersecurity and subsequently suffers a data breach. In that case, that will harm trust not just in that vendor or even that service but in government as a whole. Government agencies should look to arenas such as aviation safety where bilateral, multilateral, and international organizations have successfully aligned incentives across whole industries.30
Trust is essential to government. Without it, regulations are ineffective, services suffer, and citizens may eventually withdraw their mandate. Yet, the complexities of government trust relationships and the invisible nature of trust can lead agencies to pay it too little attention.
The first step to improving trust in government is simply to begin to measure it in all its complexity. Surveys, feedback tools, and even capturing current business process information could help agencies build up a picture of the different stakeholder groups they interact with. Not only can this help government fine-tune their understanding of trust networks, but also increase transparency of government by providing greater opportunity for stakeholder feedback—which has proven to be a key driver of trust in commercial brands.31 With those results, government agencies can identify and prioritize problems to address and coordinate trust networks to keep up with the standards citizens expect.
Trust in government is essential. It is complex. But it can be improved.
As we recover, reopen, and rebuild, it’s time to rethink the importance of Trust. At no time has it been more tested or more valued in our leaders and each other. Trust is the basis for connection.
Trust is all-encompassing. Physical. Emotional. Digital. Financial. Ethical. A nice-to-have is now a must-have; a principle is now a catalyst; a value is now invaluable. Trust distinguishes and elevates your business, connecting you with the common good. Put Trust at the forefront of your planning, strategy, and purpose, and your customers will put Trust in you. Deloitte can help you measure, enhance, and amplify Trust in your organization.