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TRANSPARENCY AND TRUST

As we recently reported in the second of a two-part series about Trust In Government for Route Fifty, about 45% of Americans have a less than favorable view of the trustworthiness of local governments, according to data from Polco. That’s somewhat up from 40% in 2017. And while it’s better than the federal government it’s still a very sorry state of affairs.


In that series, we recommended several ways that states and localities can help engender greater confidence in their efforts to serve residents; the one that was probably nearest and dearest to our hearts was the use of performance management.


Of course, simply measuring everything in sight isn’t going to grab the public’s attention. In fact, it’s repeatedly dismayed us that governments that have robust means of measuring quality are often skeptical about sharing their findings with the public. Some seem to believe that they’ll only be hit over the head with a statistical stick when efforts don't pay off.


As Marc Holzer, a well-known academic and author of Rethinking Public Administration, says, “We have a lot of data out there and a lot of performance measures. But most citizens don’t have access to that because it’s not communicated to them. And in many cases, it’s deliberately hidden by management because they don’t want to put themselves in the line of fire.”


That’s a big mistake. People mistrust what they don’t understand. They’re more inclined to have faith in an institution that is candid, even if it’s open about mistakes or “performance is proven to be poor,” says Michael Pagano, dean emeritus of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “If voters trust that the government is providing accurate information, they will continue to trust.”


There’s little question that there’s a strong journalistic urge to put bad news on the front page, while better news winds up someplace on page seven.  As The Guardian reported some years back, “people’s interest in news is much more intense when there is a perceived threat to their way of life. They care much less about what happens around them when they enjoy relative peace and/or relative prosperity.”


But as true as that may be, we’d like to make the argument that if bad news trumps good news, transparency can help cultivate trust even in times when the news may not be good. This is particularly true at the local level, where people tend to know what’s happening around them. They know when the roads are falling apart. They know when there are homeless people wrapped in newspapers on the streets. They know when their children pretend to be sick rather than attending a dangerous school.


Hiding the truth doesn’t help. Rather it’s telling the truth – good or bad – and telling the public what’s being done to make it better.


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