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  • Maria deBruijn

Public engagement – The trust mediator

Guest Blog Maria deBruijn who is the CEO of Emerge Solutions and a frequent collaborator with Strategic Steps.


In 2018, the percentage of Canadians that trusted their community Mayor would do what is right for their community was 52%. In 2021, it sits at 37%. There is quite a bit of research exploring whether the public trusts their elected officials and/or staff, and what influences public trust in government isn't surprising. It's people's perception of the elected official and staff abilities or competence. In other words, do they demonstrate the knowledge, experience and skills needed for their roles? It's also about integrity and service. Do they demonstrate openness and interact and communicate ethically with an orientation of service to the community?


Trust allows people to work together and creates a sense of belonging. There is also a reciprocal component to it. It needs to be present in both parties for it to exist. So, while we might know a lot about citizens' trust in government, what do we know about governments' trust in citizens?


Kaifeng Yang from the University of Florida conducted research on governments' propensity to trust citizens and found that the same interpersonal factors that affect citizens' trust in government also affect governments' trust in citizens. He says this shows up as two types of trust. The first is knowledge-based trust. This is about whether government believes the public has the skills to contribute to government decisions and processes - their ability. The second is the trust of the affect-based which is about government's perception of the integrity displayed by citizens when interacting with them and the degree to which citizens are focused on not just serving their own interests but the interests of the community holistically. Isn't it interesting that both sides need the same things to build trust? And, if we know this then, how can it be fostered?


Yang identifies public engagement as a mediator of trust between government and citizens. Looking at the role of public engagement as part of decision-making processes, he found that its implementation is a critical factor of trust-building. He shared that it provides consistent opportunities to build citizen AND decision-maker knowledge and relationships.


In a time of declining trust in government, thinking about public engagement as a mediator of trust makes it an invaluable component of the work governments do. While many municipalities are motivated to involve the public in decisions and citizens are motivated to participate in decisions that impact them, this isn't enough to build trust. There is a need to be deliberate about creating the circumstances, strategies, and tactics to cultivate it. This means taking time to figure out how to strengthen the capacity and commitment of the practice amongst elected officials, staff and citizens. The investment can go a long way in advancing the collective ability, integrity and service-orientation of our communities.


Whenever you're ready, I'd love to have a conversation about how public engagement could help build trust in your community. You can reach me at maria@emergesolutions.ca.


As for Strategic Steps, you can find us at ian@strategicsteps.ca. The company's Twitter profile is @strategic_steps.


Sources:

• Proof CanTrust Index

• Yang, K. (2006). Trust And Citizen Involvement Decisions: Trust in Citizens, Trust in Institutions, and Propensity to Trust. Administration & Society, Vol. 38 No. 5, P. 573-595.

• Citrin, J. & Stoker, L. (2018). Political Trust in a Cynical Age. Annual Review of Political Science 21(1): 49–70.

• Ouattara, E., Steenvoorden, E., van der Meer, T. (2020) Political Trust as a Norm-Based Evaluation? A two-wave vignette experiment on norms of trustworthiness as an essential precondition of the evaluative model of political trust. Working Paper. University of Amsterdam, University of South Hampton, Harvard Kennedy School and Economic & Social Research Council.

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