How to Rebuild Trust in Local Government Before It’s Too Late

BY STEPHEN GOLDSMITH • May 23, 2022

Local Government and Trust: Why It Counts

Trust matters. At the local level, trust unites our communities. Trust empowers local officials to rally public support for large, aspirational goals. Trust helps maintain safe and equitable communities. As Mayor of Indianapolis, I saw this firsthand when I announced major downtown and community reinvestment projects in historically neglected neighborhoods. These projects required hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, so we were asking residents to trust that we would use this money to accomplish our stated neighborhood revitalization goals. Our team faced resident pessimism, especially when we asked residents to invest some sweat equity alongside city dollars. One community leader said he had heard promises before — and they would join in once we proved we could follow through on our goals.

Building trust was a step-by-step process that I began at the very beginning by naming the initiative Building Better Neighborhoods. The name was a promise to the community, who we engaged in developing priorities and planning meetings.  With the first tangible evidence of progress (a sidewalk here, groundbreaking for affordable housing there, and improvements to the quality of sanitation services across the city) I earned the community’s trust, which in turn led to more active and broad participation.

A government that inspires trust creates conditions that encourage dedication and investment from the public. In my experience, as residents watch their community improve, they want to be part of this change by increasing their civic participation.

Trust in Local Government is Dwindling

Despite increases in extreme politics and polarization at the federal level over the last few decades, Americans have historically had high levels of trust in their local institutions and leadership. That was at least until the year 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when hyperpolarization and culture wars began to bleed into local affairs. Today, we see ongoing battles over masking and vaccine requirements, elections, policing, school curriculums, and many other issues. With each passing day, these local fights continue to sow division and chip away at the trust Americans have in City Hall.

Through their weekly survey, Morning Consult has been tracking Americans’ trust in our nation’s political institutions. When the survey first launched in November 2020, 63 percent of Americans said they had “a lot” or “some” trust in local institutions, close to the historical average of 70 percent. However, there has been a slow and steady decline in trust since then. In the most recent survey, on April 10th, 2022, just 54 percent of Americans said they have trust in their local institutions. Still a majority, but not by much.

On an optimistic view, this rapidly decreasing trust in government applies less at the local level; trust in federal government has been cratering toward historic lows according to decades of research by Pew Research Center. The Edelman Trust Barometer, a 20-plus year survey of trust and credibility, delivered similarly uncomfortable news for those in government leadership. The report headline stated that the surveys found “a world ensnared in a vicious cycle of distrust, fueled by a growing lack of faith in media and government.” Yet, it is at the level of government closest to the people where rebuilding trust needs to start.

Crises like COVID-19 present opportunities to build or lose trust when the public looks to government to solve intractable problems. In “Improving trust in state and local government” authors John O'Leary,  Angela Welle, and Sushumna Agarwal remind us that for democratically elected officials trust is not a given; they must earn it.

Trust is the combination of beliefs, perceptions, and feelings, shaped by our individual and collective experiences. Moreover, trust can sometimes be misplaced, as we deem a person or organization to be doing a good job when they are not—or vice versa. In general, however, trust is often built over time by an organization performing in a manner that demonstrates a high level of competence and an empathetic intent.

The Strategic Triangle for Rebuilding Trust

Local leaders often believe that the factors negatively impacting trust in local institutions are outside of their control, almost a feeling of bystander casualty in the shooting match between media and government.  While there is not a one-size-fits-all playbook, there are a few key actions local leaders can take today to rebuild trust with their constituents despite the external forces at play.

Recently, I attended a seminar related to the writings of my Harvard colleague and good friend Mark Moore who crafted the widely referenced strategic triangle. The triangle presented below shows the relationship among legitimacy and support, public value, and operational capacity. Each circle amplifies and is dependent on the other. The cases and articles that follow will examine trust in terms of legitimacy and support.

"Strategy in the Public Sector" triangle with each point labeled: value; legitimacy and support; or operational capacity

In reviewing the strategic triangle, I am reminded of a time years ago of when my office staff went out on one of our regular Saturday clean ups in a distressed neighborhood in Indianapolis. As we moved through an alley overflowing with trash, cleaning up and depositing refuse in a city truck, one resident came to her back door and told us to remove a mattress from her backyard. The previous lack of operational capacity meant that there was insufficient  city support in cleaning up communities, which had a cascading on resident self-help and pride in their surroundings as well as an effect on legitimacy and support. Public value decreased, as did the willingness of the community to engage in these operational activities themselves. By bolstering our capacity to address city problems on the ground, we were able to remove that mattress and, I believe, restore a piece of trust that would in turn inspire more active civic participation and value.

The Path to Rebuilding Trust in Local Government: A Series by Data-Smart City Solutions

Over the next few months, myself and writer Matthew Leger will publish a series of articles highlighting case studies on how to build trust in local government and providing actionable recommendations for local officials, all through the lens of the strategic triangle. The principles and actions that can enhance trust, and the subject of future articles include:

  1. Using storytelling and spatial narratives to create shared understanding and action.
  2. Being a responsive city by truly listening, rather than reacting.
  3. Empowering residents through the democratic process.
  4. Elevating data privacy and security as a mission critical priority
  5. Personalizing, streamlining, and enhancing constituent service delivery.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

Email the author.

About the Author

Matthew Leger

Matt Leger is a Research Assistant for the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center. He has a diversity of experiences in research across the public and private sectors, as well as in academia with a primary focus on understanding how technology can be used to help address some of society’s greatest challenges. Matt has worked with the Smart Cities Strategies team at the International Data Corporation (IDC); the NYCx team in the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer; and at the research institute CTG-UAlbany. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration both from the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany in Albany, NY.