Why Informing the Public is Crucial to Building Trust
Every year, the Edelman Trust Barometer measures the level of public trust in institutions, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), business, government and media. The level of trust (“trust index”) is defined as the average percentage of trust that a respondent had in institutions “to do what is right”.
The 2019 report found a significant correlation between information level and public trust. When respondents were asked whether they trusted institutions, the study found a 16 percentage point difference in trust between the informed public (65%) and mass population (49%).
While trust rose across all segments of the population from 2018 to 2019, the increase in trust was significantly higher amongst the informed public (+15 percentage points) than amongst the general population (+2 percentage points).
Notably, government officials are the least trusted, with only 35% of respondents ranking them as very/extremely credible, vs. the level of trust in company technical experts (65%), academic experts (63%) and “a person like yourself” (61%).
“Inform” is at the foundation of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Public Participation. Keeping the public informed is the first step to combating cynicism and/or apathy, building trust and developing a culture of civic participation.
The public is more likely to trust in governments and institutions which are open, transparent and accountable. For example, initiatives which aim to make data open by default create an environment of trust where information is accessible and shareable, and institutions can be held accountable. Similarly, when governments make a concerted effort to reach out and keep the public informed of new and/or proposed projects and initiatives, they develop ongoing relationships and build trust with their communities and constituents.
Likewise, people who trust in institutions and the political process are more likely to make an effort to stay informed and participate. When people do not trust the process, they believe that their input or participation is not valuable and will not make a difference. They are more likely to become apathetic and tune out.
What can government do?
Inform and engage the public early: Governments are often forced to act in a reactive manner, such as responding to outrage over a proposed project or policy decision. When decisions are made without public input, the outcome is likely to be met with opposition – reinforcing an adversarial relationship between decision-makers and community members.
Instead of waiting for issues to arise, build trust with the public and stakeholders by engaging with them right from the start. Laurenellen McCann’s concept of “building with, not for communities” emphasizes the importance of “[putting] communities in the driver’s seat when it comes to identifying civic problems and crafting civic solutions.” Governments should partner with communities to identify priorities and concerns and involve them in co-creating policies and solutions that meet their unique needs and challenges. Learn more about the benefits of taking a proactive approach to public and stakeholder engagement.
Make it easy to stay informed and get involved: While the majority of people are interested in being involved with their community, a 2017 study by the Vancouver Foundation identified the key barriers to doing so. 51% of respondents said that they didn’t have enough time, while 22% said that they didn’t have the money to do so. At the same time, 55% of respondents said that they already “use technology to connect with people and friends in the community”.
Include online methods of engagement to connect with people from varied social, cultural and economic backgrounds who may be less likely to attend a town hall meeting or public hearing (e.g. young people, families, people with physical disabilities, etc.) Remove barriers to comprehension by using plain language and avoiding technical terms or jargon. Include multimedia (e.g. infographics, explainer videos) to inform and educate the public about an issue instead of expecting people to read a technical report. Finally, include options for multilingual access or translation to make it easier for people who speak a different primary language to stay informed.
Don’t expect people to come to you: If there is a legacy of distrust, conflict or violence between the public and institutions (including government, schools or law enforcement), people are less willing to engage. With historical and present-day power dynamics, some community members may feel uncomfortable or unsafe interacting with government, and do not believe that they can share their perspectives openly or safely.
Instead of blaming the public for not getting involved, governments should take a proactive stance in reaching out to communities and demonstrating, through repeated acts of good faith, that they are listening to the public and taking their input and concerns into consideration.
Report back to the public: “Closing the loop” is essential to building trust and maintaining strong relationships with the community. How was public and stakeholder feedback used to influence the outcome – and if not, why not? When people are able to see how their input has made a meaningful impact on the final decision or outcome, they are more likely to stay engaged and participate again in the future.