Gaining the Trust of Your Citizens

Reprinted from the Kansas Government Journal October 2012 issue

Kansans enjoy autumn for many reasons. For farmers, the last harvest of the year is a time to get paid for months of hard work. For others, it’s a brief respite from our often-brutal summers and winters. But for me, autumn’s always been about football.

My dad got me hooked at a young age, but once I started playing the sport I had no chance of ever kicking that addiction. I know it’s cliché for a grown man to think back to the “old playing days,” but one part of those Friday night battles has stayed with me–how much teamwork was required for success. You’ll never gain one yard on a football field unless you work together with your teammates, and that requires a commitment to an important value—trust.

Unfortunately, beyond the gridiron, America is experiencing a trust-deficit. Public trust in institutions has been decreasing since the 1960s, and it’s now at record lows. Only 44% of Americans trust organized religion, 29% trust the criminal justice system, 25% trust the media, and 21% trust banks and big businesses. The federal government is possibly the least trusted, at only 13%. And although institutions closely connected to people like small businesses and local governments are still trusted (65% and 61% respectively), they too are garnering record-low levels.1

This diminished trust should matter to local governments. Studies have shown that as trust in government diminishes, so the does the rate of compliance with the law. Additionally, trust is necessary for a community to work together to fix problems, and without it there can be paralyzing inaction. Trust is also a fundamental component of a healthy democracy, as it encourages citizen engagement in politics and enhances support for democratic ideals.2

Why is contemporary trust so low? That debate is best left to the thousands of academic papers on the topic, but there are a few key factors worth mentioning, many of which are beyond the control of city officials. There is a strong relationship between economic growth and institutional trust, and sometimes trust just depends on the individual (citizens who are younger, have lower life satisfaction, and have more education, all tend to have lower levels of trust). Residents of bigger cities are also less trusting of local governments than those of smaller cities.3

But luckily, there are trust factors that local officials can influence. For example, residents that participate in community improvement activities tend to manifest higher degrees of trust in their municipalities.4 One organization in our state that’s been instrumental in coordinating these trust-building activities is Kansas PRIDE. The Kansas PRIDE Program is a partnership of Kansas State University, the Kansas Department of Commerce, and Kansas PRIDE, Inc., that assists local governments and volunteers in making their communities better places to live and work. PRIDE has facilitated the restoration of a mini-park in Smith Center, maintained historic structures in Greeley, started the farmers’ market in Elk City, and initiated hundreds of other projects in cities across Kansas.

Fighting the perception of corruption is another way to build trust. Even if corruption is non-existent, citizens are skeptical of entities managing large amounts of public funds, so municipalities should be as open as possible. Although transparency on its own is ineffective, educating the public about the local governments’ structure and decision-making processes is a proven way to build trust.

Overland Park, which was one of three Kansas municipalities to receive a 2012 Sunny Award from the Sunshine Review, a non-profit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency, has taken some great steps to build trust with public information. The City’s website, www.opkansas.org, gives the function and contact information of all governing body members, City departments, and City boards. The City also posts their own governing body manual online, which describes how specific decisions are made. These small steps demystify local government and increase citizens’ trust in their city officials.5

As many city leaders would probably guess, the most powerful explanation of public trust is the degree of satisfaction with municipal services. Recognizing the importance of high-quality city services, the City of Wichita has set up “Neighborhood City Halls.” These halls are in several convenient neighborhood locations, and allow residents to meet with city council members, talk to representatives of the city police, inspection, and health departments, enroll in parks and recreation programs, and get assistance with issues like trash, loose dogs, and dangerous structures.6

The City of Gardner has also taken action to improve municipal services. Each year, the City conducts a citizen survey to see which services its residents are satisfied with and which it needs to improve. This survey provides a comprehensive overview of the quality of municipal services, and is an important tool in its resource-allocation decisions. By providing tools that respond to citizens’ service demands, Gardner and Wichita have increased their residents’ trust in their local governments.

Any municipality trying to gain the trust of its residents needs to remember that trust can only be built up over time, and that any initiative requires the involvement of both parties. Whether that means creating volunteer opportunities, educating residents about how local governments work, staffing centers to respond to service requests, or simply asking residents how they feel about their community, trust can only be established by creating tools for residents to interact with the local government. Once that happens, the city and its residents can work together as a team to build great a community.

Michael Koss a student in the KU MPA program and serves as the Membership Services Manager for the League of Kansas Municipalities. He can be reached at mkoss@lkm.org or (785) 354-9565.

1 http://www.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx
2 Sofie Marien and Marc Hooghe, Does political trust matter?, European Journal of Political Research, Volume 50, Issue 2 (March 2011).
3 http://www.vanderbilt.edu/lapop/insights/I0835en.pdf
4 http://www.vanderbilt.edu/lapop/insights/I0835en.pdf
5 http://igitur-archive.library.uu.nl/USBO/2010-0127-200123/Grimmelikhuijsen.pdf
6 http://www.vanderbilt.edu/lapop/insights/I0835en.pdf