A prescription for restoring some of the trust in government

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For a variety of reasons, Americans’ trust in government is at a pretty low ebb right now. A survey of 4,000 citizens conducted by Deloitte and Fortune shows what the company calls a crisis of trust. Trust has been declining for decades. And the pandemic really blew a hole in that balloon. With more on the survey and some clues to restoring trust, Deloitte’s Executive Director for Government Insights Bill Eggers spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bill, good to have you back.

Bill Eggers: It’s great to be back with you, Tom.

Tom Temin: Give us a situation report here about trust in government. How bad is it according to, I guess Pew and your surveys?

Bill Eggers: Well, it’s not good Tom. For the past six decades, actually, trust in the U.S. federal government has perpetually declined from a high of 77% in 1964, to really about 20% today. And I think the pandemic – we’ve seen trust even get lower because of this in the US while, whereas in other countries that handled the pandemic better, you actually saw trusts go up in government. In our survey, the trust signal scores for the US federal government are lower than the scores for any commercial industry that we surveyed. And the federal government is less trusted than the state and local governments. And you know, another thing we’re seeing in America is social trust has also plummeted. And this can make it a lot harder to solve big problems in the country. About three-fourths of US respondents to a survey said that Americans had too little confidence in each other. So in short, America is experiencing a crisis of trust. And rebuilding trust in government is absolutely imperative for governments to deliver on missions such as policymaking, regulating markets, enforcing rules, and so on. And we actually did a survey with Forbes of CEOs. The CEOs said rebuilding trust in government is their top priority for the new administration.

Tom Temin: Interesting. So yeah, the pandemic didn’t help. And I guess there’s a variety of reasons we could cite for that. And the social idea, I guess, the rise of social media has caused the breakdown of social trust. I guess there’s a lesson there somewhat. But let’s talk about government for a moment. Your report outlines what you call four signals of trust. And I thought that was a really interesting way to look at it. Tell us those four signals, and it sounds like they have to converge in some manner to have coherence.

Bill Eggers: Absolutely. So, we surveyed 4,000 American citizens but we also actually asked their views not just on federal government as a whole but looking at 39 different federal agencies. And what we did was we looked at how they performed on four different trust signals, which we’ve statistically validated as significant contributors of trust for customers and employees. And those are humanity, transparency, capability, and reliability. And just a word or two more in each one – humanity, where you’re basically showcasing fairness of policies and programs, you’re addressing underlying inequities in government programs, perhaps transparency is where you’re being open with not just what decisions are made, but also the underlying data, where that is available. And you’re communicating to citizens stakeholder groups in a way that conveys the humanity of government and its workers. And then you’ve got capability – you need to demonstrate an agency’s capability to do its job well promote that success, that’s really important to show government competence. And as I’ve written about in previous books before, if you don’t get the big things, right, you lose a lot of trust. So that is effectively executing on your mission. And then lastly, there’s reliability. And that’s implementing, publicising controls that can make sure that government is spending taxpayer money efficiently and effectively. And it’s reliable, even when unexpected events take place.

Tom Temin: I guess Michael Dukakis was about 35 years too early and saying this is all about competence, when he was nominated to run for president. But this is more than just simply bad websites, of which there are plenty of those, but it goes deeper than that?

Bill Eggers: Absolutely, it goes far deeper than that. And we’ve looked at this and found that trust can be built and sustained by demonstrating two really foundational attributes: You need to deliver on your promise all the time with competence. And you need to do so with good intent. And, you know, we do highlight in the study a number of important examples of where agencies were able to turn this around. And one of them I think, is the Department of Veteran Affairs where they were able to improve trust in their services to veterans by really focusing on customer experience and leading with trust. I know you recall about five, six years ago, when, with an aging veteran population and soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, there were long wait times at VA facilities. And they were able to really turn that around and create a big cultural shift by focusing and leading with trust. In 2015 they launched the veterans experience office, followed by a Veteran Signals program, and they started collecting feedback from veterans, eligible dependents, caregivers, survivors – they started measuring the attributes that drive trust at the VA, and they wrote what does it mean to drive trust in the patient experience across all these geographies? And then through their Signals program, they evolved into a more empathetic organization, really laser focused on the veteran experienced in well being, and continually measuring a whole series of these different trust signals over time. So they have a sense in response feedback mechanism.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bill Eggers, Executive Director for Government Insights at Deloitte. And many times, you mentioned law enforcement, you know, because of the many different roles the government has, it’s an enforcer, it’s an educator, it’s a deliverer of services, it sends money to people, it does a lot of different things. Sometimes a few bad actors can cause an agency to come into bad light in a new sense – this happened with the FBI elements of the Justice Department over the past couple of years – which doesn’t really reflect what it does as a whole very often. Is that a contributing factor? And I guess it’s pretty hard to predict and prevent that kind of thing from happening?

Bill Eggers: Absolutely. I mean, when we measured this, what we found was that the, what we call the enforcer agencies, the law enforcement agencies at the federal level, had the lowest trust scores of any of the agencies that we measured among the 39 agencies, and they were the only organizations in all of the survey public and private sector that collectively scored negatively on the humanity and transparency. Trust signals – we’re also seeing something similar at the local level, where for the first time in three decades, public confidence in the police has fallen below 50%. This is an issue, and as you said, it oftentimes, it really doesn’t reflect overall organization, oftentimes, but more individuals, and so on. But this is again, where we have seen some positive developments in local police departments where they’ve been able to improve trust in various ways, whether it’s about reporting on sexual assault victims in New Orleans and Philadelphia, and other ways, what they’ve done is they really focused on a couple things. First, that human values are really critical. You want to make sure your behaviors and processes that are unbiased and fair go a long way to building public trust. You know, in this case, with sexual assault victims and approaching them with empathy and humanity, you drive much greater trust. And then transparency of course, ensuring prime statistics are accurate, properly categorized, and you want to instill a lot of confidence in the enforcement capabilities, but in the fairness and providing an explanation, when data changes can help build trust. So there’s a lot of work to do on that front. But we also have seen examples of where these agencies have been able to really move the needle from a trust perspective.

Tom Temin: And I want to ask you just for a moment to philosophize maybe about the long-term trend, as you point out. Before 1970, trust was at the 70% level, and then it really dropped. And I’m guessing the Vietnam War might have been a contributor in the years that you show a spike, right after 9/11. But basically, the trend if you were looking at it, mathematically, it’s down steadily. Why is that? If you look at it, the number of programs that touch Americans directly that have been launched, say since 1970, or 1968 or so, has increased dramatically, and trust has gone down dramatically.

Bill Eggers: I think there’s a few reasons for this. First of all, certainly, it’s increasing partisanship or hyperpartisanship. Back in the 50s and 60s, even, you had a lot more bipartisanship in terms of bills that were passed. And just in terms of how, you know, a lot of Americans felt they weren’t sorted in the same way they are today. So when a Republican is president, then Democrats are going to have a lot less trust in government – federal government – and vice versa. I think that is probably the largest reason. I think also just decades of government bashing has contributed to this declining trust in institutions in general. I think there’s also, you know, it’s more recently, the role of misinformation, disinformation. And basically just the sorting, we’ve seen, people into their various camps. There’s a lot of reasons for this. What we have seen overseas and elsewhere, is if you are able to have a lot of confidence, you get the big things right. You deliver services effectively and efficiently. You can actually have high trust and popularity numbers. And we’ve seen that with a number of the governors in the country. You know, Larry Hogan right next door, who’s very, very consistently had very high numbers by really focusing on getting things done and not being partisan.

Tom Temin: Bill Eggers is executive director for Government Insights at Deloitte. Thanks so much.

Bill Eggers: Thanks so much, Tom. Great to be with you again.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to the study at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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