To be sure, there is a distribution of results across the agencies in this group. Not all have negative scores individually, but, as with educators, this is a relatively narrow spread from top to bottom performers. Thus, even the best scores for enforcers are quite low compared with most other agencies. These results are concerning, especially the negative scores for humanity and transparency. But these results are a snapshot at a moment in time, and agencies that act as enforcers have shown in the past that they do have the ability to enhance trust through their actions.
Building public trust in law enforcement
Trust in the police has fluctuated considerably in the last three decades. However, for the first time in three decades since Gallup started tracking it, public confidence in the police has fallen below 50%. In August 2020, only 48% of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, down by five points since 2019.72
Managing public trust in law enforcement is complex and challenging. While police are tasked with maintaining law and order, they are also one of the most visible and tangible public services that people interact with. Their actions on the ground can impact overall public trust in a city government.
Sexual violence crimes provide a powerful example of the importance of trust. Today, only 0.5% of sexual assault perpetrators are incarcerated, significantly lower than other crimes such as robbery and battery, where 2.0% and 3.3% of perpetrators are incarcerated, respectively.73 Moreover, only 23% of sexual assault and rape cases are ever even reported.74
Government at all levels has made strides in reducing the taboo around reporting sexual assault cases and making law enforcement processes more empathetic to victims. In 2016, Congress passed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act to provide basic rights to victims such as a free forensic medical exam, preservation of physical evidence for 20 years, and updates on the progress of the investigation. Since then, multiple states have passed similar bills.75
At the local level, the focus has been on improving sexual assault reporting and avoiding case misclassification. For instance, in 2010, the New Orleans Police Department found a huge number of sexual assault cases tagged as “miscellaneous” in police records. After an internal audit, the department reclassified such records, leading to a nearly 49% jump in sexual assault cases over a five-month period.76 The police chief held a press event explaining the spike, demonstrating the department’s commitment to transparency.77
The department additionally worked with advocacy groups and academics to create a training program for detectives to engage in a more empathetic response to sexual assault victims. This was later expanded to include patrol officers, generally the first responders in such cases.78 Such initiatives could help in improving the trust a victim might have in the law enforcement system.
In another example, almost a decade earlier, the Philadelphia police department had similar issues around sexual assault cases. In 1999, the Philadelphia police chief focused on reforming processes around classifying sexual assault cases and revising the policy around DNA testing and storage. More importantly, the police department worked closely with a community partner, the Women’s Law Project, to review all sexual assault cases and make recommendations on reinvestigations. This allowed the department to build credibility and improve public confidence in its investigations.79
Several important lessons emerged from the local police department experience:
• Human values are critical. Behaviors and processes that are unbiased and fair go a long way in building public trust. Approaching victims and complainants with empathy and humanity can drive greater trust in law enforcement agencies.
• Transparency drives trust. Ensuring crime statistics are accurate and properly categorizing reports can help instill confidence in government’s enforcement capability. Providing an explanation when data changes can also help to build trust.
Navigating the journey toward higher trust
Trust-building is not a one-off activity. It should be continuous and action-oriented. Building trust often requires changing the status quo and being laser-focused on constituent experience and perception.
What should government leaders do to start building greater trust?
1. Identify an agency’s archetype. Assess and identify the appropriate R2R archetype in which a given agency fits. This can help identify key trust signals.
2. Understand your current performance in those key areas. Conduct research to establish your trust baseline, because the reality of trust is the perception of citizens.
3. Focus on key trust signals. Strengthen an agency’s most relevant trust signals first. The exception to this rule may be when any one trust signal is extremely low. Critically low trust on any one dimension will undermine efforts elsewhere. This means no trust signal can be ignored.
4. Consider what has worked for others. Look to the experiences of other agencies, nongovernment organizations, and commercial enterprises to identify a portfolio of potential actions. A good starting point is this article’s 16 actions that have been shown to help enhance trust (figure 3) and lessons from the experiences of government agencies of each archetype.
5. Build strategies to strengthen key trust signals. Building on the lessons of others, formulate strategies to shape activities, actions, policies, and behaviors that bolster an agency’s most relevant trust signals. Just as important, build a communication plan to convey the authentic intent behind trust-focused initiatives.
6. Sense and respond. Build methods and feedback mechanisms to measure progress on key trust signals. Use this feedback to adjust strategies and make meaningful changes in processes and culture. This was done effectively at the VA through an enterprise-wide measurement system to actively manage trust.
7. Use technology to catalyze change. A key finding from our research is the capacity of technology to drive change. Innovation plays a key role in many trust transformations. From AI technologies employed at the VA to the use of digital democracy tools in Taiwan, the innovative use of technology can accelerate change and improve government response on the ground.
Government institutions today, across all levels, often struggle to build public trust. Because trust is perceptive, government institutions should demonstrate competence and intent to rebuild trust. That said, these are mere words if they cannot be transformed into government actions and policies.
We have seen how the four trust signals of humanity, transparency, capability, and reliability can help government leaders in building greater trust. More importantly, these four trust signals can be measured, tracked, and improved—helping to make trust central to government functioning.