© 2013 CQ Roll Call

Governments need to regain trust of the governed

Engaging citizens with open government initiatives isn't risky; it's necessary

September 6, 2014 6:00AM ET

Governments have lost the trust of the very people they aim to serve.

Edelman’s 2014 trust barometer reveals a continued lack of public trust in government — with lower global levels of trust than for nonprofit organizations, businesses and media. According to Edelman’s 2014 analysis, “Trust in government fell globally 4 points to an historic low (44 percent) making it the least trusted institution for the third consecutive year.”

Nineteen countries — including Sweden, India, the U.K., China, Ireland and Mexico — experienced declines in government trust over the last year. In a 2013 survey, government dysfunction surpassed the economy as the problem Americans are most likely to list as the country’s most serious. Similarly, Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that trust in public institutions among Americans ages 18 to 29 is at a record low. A 2014 Gallup survey showed that Americans’ confidence in the three branches of government continues to fall, with 27 percent of adults who responded expressing a great deal or a lot of confidence in the president and only 7 percent in Congress.

For people to regain confidence in these institutions, alternatives to traditional, top-down governance models that require more engagement and collaboration from ordinary citizens and grass-roots organizations should be tested. Government should partner with private companies and nonprofit groups to develop better ways to provide basic services. It should also establish opportunities for citizens to be meaningfully involved in public decision-making, community building and civic life.

These trials should be nonideological, pragmatic and empirical. There should be a willingness to admit failures, learn from mistakes and ask more questions. The problems and solutions that emerge must be rigorously assessed in light of the goal of establishing a government that more people feel is working for them. 

New perceptions

Governments’ reputation at home and abroad is related to how they use technology and develop new ways for citizens to engage with the public sector. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a multilateral initiative to promote government transparency, accountability, participation and use of emergent digital technologies. This includes everything from ensuring government data are open and easily accessible to creating centralized platforms to streamline the delivery of government services. One U.S. example is Regulations.gov — a user-friendly portal for people to submit their comments on proposed regulation. Starting in 2011 with eight participants — including Brazil, the U.S., the U.K. and the Philippines — the OGP has grown into a 64-member community run jointly by governments and nongovernmental civil society organizations.

New Urban Mechanics created Citizen Connect, a mobile app that residents can use to report nonemergency issues by sending photos and messages to the relevant person at City Hall.

Bloomberg Philanthropies and Nesta, a U.K. innovation foundation, recently released an important and timely report on these global government innovation teams. The report announced the launch of an online repository to track the results of these initiatives. This is critical because a dearth of case studies has hampered progress. The report cites 20 of the most promising examples spanning the globe. Denmark’s MindLab, for instance, is a cross-government innovation unit to engage businesses and citizens to develop new public sector solutions to problems in employment, education and government services. Instead of presupposing that only elite experts have useful knowledge for governance, Seoul’s Innovation Bureau privileges residents’ common sense wisdom to help forge solutions to community problems. For example, it created the Generation Sharing Housing service, which matches elderly people with spare residential space with students in need of rooms who are willing to help out with household tasks such as grocery shopping. Another project, Open Closet, matches job seekers in need of professional attire with people who can lend clothing and perhaps provide job interview tips. All these examples consistently had strong leadership and government support while communicating their approach to the wider public.

According to the report, there are lots of innovation teams in Europe and North America, with numbers beginning to rise in Asia. The report cites three promising examples in Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. Although Africa is lagging, NGOs there are adopting several approaches worthy of wider attention, including the Centre for Study of Governance Innovation (the continent’s first) at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Tanzania’s HakiElimu, which I visited a few years ago as a researcher for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, is another notable civil-society group finding creative solutions to engage the public on policies that affect their lives. For example, it trains ordinary people to serve as media watchdogs.

In the United States, former public servants in Boston teamed up with Mayor Thomas Menino to launch the Office for New Urban Mechanics in 2010. It focuses on more participatory and cutting-edge approaches for improving several public issue areas, including street management, government transparency, citizen engagement, education and business opportunities. Crucially, the office has established ways to measure its impact, includes external research partners such as Harvard University and has collected documentation for wider dissemination and use.

New Urban Mechanics created Citizen Connect, a mobile app that residents can use to report nonemergency issues by sending photos and messages to the relevant person at City Hall. Two and a half million neighborhood problems have been reported, leading to 70,000 improvements in neighborhood conditions. Citizens have gained a renewed sense that government works and the knowledge that it works because they are a part of it. Of course, success requires city resources and institutional infrastructure: An app can’t fix things in a vacuum. 

Risk averse

Launching initiatives like these is difficult. Institutions, particularly those that work alongside government bodies, are naturally risk-averse. Furthermore, they have no incentive to admit failure: Public officials can rightfully fear electoral backlash, and there are real costs in the form of time, money and resources. It’s hard to measure the impact of these programs, too, because civic engagement is a complex matter that can take years to track in a meaningful way.

All parties should keep in mind that citizens can tolerate experimentation — including even failures — when it’s effectively communicated to them. My research has demonstrated citizens feel increased trust in their elected officials, communities and political institutions when they feel their voices are respected and heard. Instead of fearing a citizen backlash, officials and program managers should engage citizens more deeply from the start. 

Hollie Russon Gilman is a civic innovation fellow at the New America Foundation. She holds a Ph.D. from the department of government at Harvard University; her dissertation is the first academic study on U.S. participatory budgeting. As the former White House open government and innovation adviser, she worked toward federally supported participatory budgeting. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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