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
It all starts with measuring trust
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.