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Customer Engagement and Trust in Government: Divergent Paths?

“In 1958, about three quarters (73 percent) expressed trust in Washington to do what’s right.  Today only 17 percent do.” — Pew Research Center 

A new presidential administration is upon us and trust is in high demand. We can all curate our own version of the truth through social media feeds, selected news outlets, and outsized “influencers” who can bend attitudes and beliefs. Trust in the news media and in government continue to decline, yet calls for “citizen engagement” permeate priority lists for government technology leaders. In these conditions, it is easy to grow cynical.

But if citizens don’t trust government, how will they believe in the services government provides?  Without trust, how do we believe what the government is telling us?

The idea of not trusting government is itself fascinating. It is easy to anonymize government even though it comprises human beings. Furthermore, government is bound (mostly) by laws promoting transparency, and delivers services that we can see and feel every day. Elected officials are well-known, and we have the choice to keep or change them on a regular basis.

When Did This Distrust Begin?

We used to have more trust in government. However, handling of the Vietnam War, followed closely by Watergate, kicked off the decline of trust in government. These events and others knocked our leaders off their pedestals. A more nuanced view of “trust in government” is “trust in our elected leaders,” but the one bad apple principle applies. Other factors are also at play. We tend to trust government more when the political party we favor is in power and those of opposing political parties struggle to agree on basic facts.

Silver Linings

Fortunately, silver linings abound. Trust in state and local government is much higher than trust at the federal level, Axios reported. Government agencies and departments produce impactful results every day.  Those of us who have worked in and around government know that it is filled with hard-working public servants who only want to do a good job.

State and local governments are leading today’s calls for a better customer experience. How else to build trust but to deliver services in a manner that meets expectations? I was fortunate to have worked for Gov. Sonny Perdue, who believed deeply that government needed to work and that we needed to treat the public as customers of our services. He focused on the details of government operations, demanding accountability from those who worked in his administration. Using this philosophy, he remade Georgia’s government with a “customer first” culture. He often quoted Maya Angelou’s phrase, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

Engagement Builds Trust in Government

The distractions we endure grow louder every day, but the electronic devices and underlying technologies that enable this consuming noise are also helping governments improve the customer experience. Governments can cut through the noise and engage citizens by focusing on:

  • Open access to facts and data (excluding personal data)
  • Providing the public with the tools they need to make informed decisions
  • Compelling success stories — good news is contagious and we need more of it
  • Collaborating across jurisdictions — the public will appreciate seeing federal, state, and local governments working together
  • Recognizing that leadership (at all levels) matters
  • Acknowledging that solutions for service improvement abound and barriers preventing those solutions should be knocked down

Governments that embrace the customer experience can unleash engagement opportunities that will build trust in our public institutions. Public servants and elected officials alike can adopt this mindset. Doing so requires leadership and a willingness to challenge custom and practice. However, the results will make citizens remember not what was said, but how a positive experience made them feel.