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How to rebuild trust in the federal government

It starts by understanding the four factors that measure competence and intent—and making sure they’re in balance

How to rebuild trust in the federal government
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Americans have watched the proportion of citizens who trust government plummet to all-time lows1 since its peak in 1964, but public servants looking to rebuild that trust have little information to analyze. New research by Deloitte identifies four indicators that signal trust: humanity, transparency, capability, and reliability. Our proprietary data and analysis measures trust and examines trust itself as a perception of competence and intent. Specifically, capability and reliability signal a perception of competence, while humanity and transparency signal intent (click here for diagram).

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But these perceptions are not fixed. Trust is dynamic, constantly changing, in need of nurturing, and difficult to sustain. According to the Edelman trust barometer’s January 2021 data2, all the trust gains made by governments globally in May 2020 were lost by January 2021 as COVID-19 and economic realities hit hard.

Moreover, government can’t address trust and confidence issues with a one-size-fits-all approach. Understanding how different types of government agencies interact with their customers—a lens we term retail to regulator—can help them rebuild trust amid the complexity of different government operations and missions. With this in mind, we surveyed 4,000 Americans to understand their perceptions of trust in the U.S. federal government as a whole and 39 different federal agencies and departments to identify the biggest gaps in building greater trust.

HOW WE PERCEIVE TRUST IN GOVERNMENT

Our research organized federal agencies into six archetypes according to their mission areas and the nature of their interaction with the public (click here for diagram). The archetypes range from enforcement agencies, such as Customs and Border Protection, to retail agencies, like the Postal Service.

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Some key insights from the survey provide a peek into how trust is perceived by the citizens surveyed:

  • The federal government is one of the least trusted entities in the country. Respondents’ trust perception of the federal government is the lowest compared to state and local government and other industries included in the survey.
  • Trust in the federal government is less than the sum of its parts (click here for diagram). Respondents’ trust in the federal government as a whole is much less than their trust in the aggregate of the 39 surveyed agencies.
  • Federal agencies do well on competence but need to improve on intent. Federal agencies should showcase better intent—empathy, fairness, kindness, transparency—to build greater trust.
  • The Deloitte Federal Trust survey shows a large variance in trust perception across the retail-to-regulator (R2R) spectrum. Citizens have higher trust in high-touch agencies at the retail end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, high-touch agencies in the enforcer archetype, such as federal-enforcement agencies, are the least trusted across the spectrum (click here for diagram).

NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY TOWARD GREATER 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?

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Make stakeholders feel trust.
Trust is a perception, so on some level, trust in government starts with making people feel trust. Government can help improve those trust relationships through actions that demonstrate:

  • Humanity. Showcase fairness in policies and programs. Address underlying inequities in government programs.
  • Transparency. Be open with not just what decisions are made, but also the underlying data where available.
  • Capability. Demonstrating an agency’s capability to do its job well (and promoting that success!) is an important way to show government’s competence.
  • Reliability. Implementing and publicizing controls can help show that government is spending taxpayer money efficiently and effectively and is reliable even when unexpected events occur.

Coordinate an ecosystem to do trustworthy work.
Feeling trust is important, but trust must also be based on facts and real-world performance. Government rarely delivers any performance alone. It depends on an ecosystem of employees, vendors, and regulated entities to work together to deliver services. Each must uphold the same trust standards as the government itself to be trustworthy to citizens.

Therefore, government’s trust relationships depend on orchestrating internal and external capabilities to make sure government—and its partners—do trustworthy work. To do this effectively, government and agency leaders need to:

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  • Identify their agency’s archetype. Assess and identify the appropriate R2R archetype in which a given agency fits. This can help identify key trust signals.
  • Understand current performance in those key areas. Conduct research to establish an agency’s trust baseline, because the reality of trust is the perception of citizens and other stakeholders.
  • Focus on key trust signals. Strengthen your agency’s most relevant trust signals first. The exception to this rule may be when one of the trust signals is extremely low. Critically low trust in any one dimension will undermine efforts elsewhere. This means no trust signal can be ignored.
  • Consider what has worked for others. Look to the experiences of other agencies, organizations, and commercial enterprises to identify a portfolio of potential actions. When a trust signal lags, governments can take steps to restore that trust.

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs built trust by understanding and solving the pain points in the veteran’s experience with the VA. They took in more than 4 million survey responses and 1.8 million comments3 and then used that feedback to reshape the patient experience. Analytics flagged more than 690 vets for suicide intervention visits4, making it very clear that the agency cares—while possibly saving scores of lives. These measures boosted VA’s trust score in outpatient services to 90%5 in the middle of a pandemic.

  • 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 and its delivery partners’ most relevant trust signals. Just as important, build a communication plan to convey the authentic intent behind trust-focused initiatives. New technology can help significantly. Tools like self-service DMV kiosks or digital collaboration tools can improve capability and reliability.

Ultimately, studying citizens’ perspectives according to trust signals is not just an exercise in PR. It’s a way to measure what citizens experience and perceive to embark on a sincere commitment toward rebuilding public trust.

Matt Gentile is a principal with Deloitte Transactions and Business Analytics LLP and leads the Risk & Financial Advisory Government & Public Services practice. RJ Krawiec is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Government & Public Services Customer Strategy and Applied Design practice. William D. Eggers is the executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights. You can read Deloitte’s full study, “Rebuilding Trust in Government,” here. If you would like to learn more about Deloitte’s Government & Public Services (GPS) practice, please visit our career opportunities page.

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Sources: 1. Pew Research Center; 2. Edelman; 3-5. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
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