Although the United States was founded on a healthy suspicion of government, laying the groundwork for a robust private sector and free press, Americans have historically retained enough trust in public officials and agencies for them to function effectively.
Americans rely on government agencies to provide myriad services, such as vital assistance after natural disasters, tax collection, and accurate population counting to ensure communities across the country are appropriately represented and served.
But in recent years, public opinion research has consistently shown that this healthy skepticism has morphed into wholesale distrust, exacerbated by external factors such as a global pandemic, geopolitical shocks, and technological disruptions. Now more than ever, government leaders need sophisticated methods to credibly rebuild trust in government among the people they serve.
Addressing the ongoing and systemic trust challenge can often feel impossibly complex. Past remedies rooted in an individual—rather than an institutional—understanding of trust usually resulted in a patchwork of siloed solutions.
Today, only one-fifth of surveyed Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (19%), according to a report released by the Pew Research Center in June. That’s down from last year.
Government leaders should consider a new suite of tools to intentionally identify, measure, and manage trust—not only with the public they serve, but with the wide range of employees, vendors, and partners they engage on a daily basis.
“Government organizations have historically relied on traditional enterprise risk management—along with cost, schedule, and performance—to stay on track,” said Rajiv Gupta, managing director at Deloitte Consulting LLP and a leader in customer strategy and applied design. “But trust is an equally important lens here and prioritizing it will ultimately determine if a government organization will effectively execute its mission to serve taxpayers.”
Deloitte’s Trust Ecosystem framework, developed in response to the growing lack of trust in government, suggests public sector leaders break down nebulous concepts into tangible, measurable, and manageable components. The framework helps distinguish who trusts whom to do what.
MAKE TRUST MORE TANGIBLE
One challenge is that trust is hard to define in a practical sense and it’s often used in multiple ways—even in the same conversation. Failure to describe trust in concrete terms makes it more difficult for government leaders to address.
At Deloitte, we’ve helped clients make progress on this by sharing our own definition of trust, which is the “combination of beliefs, ideas, and feelings that, in the face of risk, influences how we engage with other people, organizations, and things.” Breaking it down further, we identify how three trust areas—competency, humanity, and integrity—influence the trust ecosystem in related, but distinct, ways.
EMBRACE CONTINUOUS MEASUREMENT
Once leaders have identified the type of trust that’s lacking, they’ll need to measure it. One ruler won’t do: Different types of trust require different measures. Government leaders can measure what people know through widespread surveys or informal polling; what people do by analyzing consumer behavior and habits; and how people feel from qualitative and anecdotal data from focus groups and sentiment analysis.
Deloitte uses the Trust Measurement Platform, a suite of survey instruments and proxy measures, which includes social sensing and natural language processing analysis. The platform measures different types of trust across different contexts, among a wide range of people, such as public employees, regulated businesses, and families accessing government services.
For government leaders who provide services directly to the public, the right set of tools can help reveal the tiny but cumulative way that trust can erode. But tech isn’t enough: Lasting change should also be accompanied by an organization-wide measurement mindset.
“What we’re challenging high-impact service providers to do is actually measure [trust] immediately after each transaction,” said Andy Lewandowski, a digital experience advisor in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, in a recent podcast about improving government’s customer service delivery. “We could have…the best technology systems, the best call center scripts for agents. But if that customer did not have a great transaction, that one moment that mattered in their journey, we lose trust with the public.”
It’s been said that trust is earned by the teaspoon but lost by the bucket. And even after it’s earned, slowly and gradually, trust requires constant monitoring and cultivation to prevent erosion.
“Deloitte analyzes trust ecosystems in an ongoing and holistic way,” said Jacqueline Winters, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP. “That means we tailor trust solutions to very specific types of challenges, which might include engaging customers more effectively, addressing public messaging, and combating misinformation.”
Managing trust enables government leaders to get even more value out of the functions they’re already performing. If you have public-facing websites and forms, enhance site navigation to reinforce the organization’s competency. If you engage with your customers through help desks or contact centers, write scripts with humanity. If you’re navigating a rapid decline of employee confidence in leadership, deliver messages that highlight integrity.
A decline in people’s trust for their government may undermine leaders’ ability to spend tax dollars effectively, protect sensitive data from cyberattacks, and even oversee fair elections. This not only impedes their ability to serve the public; it also threatens to delegitimize the very foundation of our democracy.
But there is still reason to be optimistic. The same Pew research shows that most Americans still have some or quite a lot of confidence in the future of the country, and more than half of those surveyed (57%) think that “Americans can always find ways to solve our problems.”
“Our government clients have known for a long time that they have trust challenges and need an actionable and holistic solution for tackling the complexity of improving trust,” said Elaine Duke, a specialist executive at Deloitte Consulting LLP and the former acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “We now see a future in which many of our services will explicitly include features that help our clients address trust in ways that can improve their relationship to the American people.”