Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Trust is essential for government, but how do leaders engender trust in their agencies?

Edelman, a global public relations company, has released its latest findings on a how populations around the world trust public-, private-, media, and nonprofit institutions.  The conclusions that the report draws have stark and urgent lessons for government agencies, especially as they implement and update their social media guidelines.

Their report, “The Edelman Trust Barometer,” is a must-read for government agencies for the simple single reason that trust is the underpinning of all government activities.  Citizens’ trust is what enables governments to function efficiently, to act decisively in citizens’ best interest, and to be open enough to allow for real transparency and accountability.

Though the report focuses mainly on private-sector organizations and what they can and should do to engender trust in their customers, many of their findings hold true for government.  The key take-aways, I think, are these:

  1. Rank-and-file employees should engage more through social media, because people trust leaders of organizations less than “ordinary workers,” technical experts, and academics.
  2. Use social media more often and effectively because engagement builds trust more consistently than operations.
  3. Social Media and innovation offer models for building trust: participate, advocate, and evaluate comprise Edelman’s formula for trust, and also are the cornerstones for building successful social media and innovation programs.

It is important to note that people trust NGOs, businesses, and the media more than they trust their governments.  From the report:

Government saw the largest decline in trust of any institution in 2014. . . .  The largest drops in trust in government were seen in the U.S. [and other countries] . . . well below the 50 percent mark.

Media also saw a decline in 2014, as trust among informed publics dropped five points to 52 percent, the same level seen in 2013 (a rise from 49 percent in 2012). Nearly 80 percent of countries reported trusting media less over the last year.

[T]rust in business . . .  in developing markets, however, soared as nearly 85 percent of countries in this category surveyed well above 50 percent.

For the seventh year in a row, NGOs are the most trusted institution. All regions surveyed at or above 60 percent. . . .

So what can governments do to earn back the trust of their citizens?  Here are three activities that the report findings indicate are critical:


Rank-and-file employees should engage more through social media

The report clearly demonstrates that people have more trust in "people like them" than in "CEOs."  For government agencies, this translates into a greater trust in front-office and field-office staff than in agency leadership.  Two charts from the report make this abundantly clear:






Use social media more often and effectively

Social media can be used for far more than broadcasting agency information.  It can be used for listening, as well.  But even more powerful, especially to build trust, is as a channel for engagement.  And, as The Trust Barometer makes clear, engagement is immensely important to building trust.






Social Media and innovation offer models for building trust

In the Center's Six Trends Driving Change in Government, one trend that was examined was Innovation. The most common structure for a successful innovation program was described as "Create - Activate - Evaluate - Iterate - Incorporate."   In The Trust Barometer, Edelman suggests a three-stage process for building trust: Participate - Advocate - Evaluate.  

By participate, they mean simply to engage in social media: talk, listen, respond to people who are trying to have a meaningful dialgue with your organization.  Advocate, in Edelman's report, means to have a social goal and a strategy to attain it.  For government agencies, this would mean stating a positon, on lowering power consumption within a region, for example, and then using social media as a channel through which to achieve that goal.  Finally: evaluate.  Be transparent in how you measure your success and then in revealing the data on your program.  Were you able to reduce power consumption (for example)?

As with setting up a social media program, the keys are engagement and transparency.  As with innovation, what matters is not necessarily success in every program, but a willingness to try, and a dedication to honest evaluation even in the face of failure.  

The report is brutal in it's bad new for government: people do not trust it as much as nearly every other insitution.  But the good news is that trust is a renewable resource, and agencies can begin rebuilding their stores as easily as they can sign on to social media and start engaging with their stakeholders.