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Using Data to Build Trust in Government

By Doug Criscitello, Managing Director, Grant Thornton Public Sector



Trust, perhaps the most important ingredient to a well-functioning society, is in very short supply these days. As the Pew Research Center regularly reports, trust in the U.S. government has generally been on a downward trajectory for decades. As pointed out in a recent survey conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, we now find ourselves at a point where a majority of Americans do not trust the government to do what is right—even some of the time. Clearly, something’s gotta give.

In an everyday setting, we tend to think of trust as something that comes from telling the truth, doing what you say you will do, and just trying to act fairly. While those qualities are sufficient to generate trust among individuals, the public has, perhaps unrealistically, held their elected officials to the same standard. But candidates for public office tend to propose grand solutions to societal problems without much regard for what can be accomplished practically. That tendency to over promise and under deliver leads, not surprisingly, to a diminution of trust among the very people politicians seek to impress.

Some degree of suspicion of government is healthy; blind faith is surely not a precondition for being a patriotic citizen. But we may be approaching a tipping point where the level of distrust is so severe it hinders our ability to operate productively. Under the American model, a compact of mutual trust between citizens and government is essential for a well-functioning and free society. Trust forms when trustworthiness is joined with competence.

To be sure, falling trust levels is a phenomenon occurring not just in the U.S., but in countries around the world. The probable causes are consistent with concerns that have been expressed here in the U.S.—that government is viewed as dishonest and corrupt and primarily concerned with serving the powerful rather than the vast majority of citizens. A perceived diminishment of economic prospects along with building pressure to address issues such as the COVID pandemic, war/terrorism, large-scale migrations, and climate change have heightened citizen anxieties and distrust. Exacerbating this phenomenon are divergent levels of trust in key institutions between the mass population and individuals considered “informed” (i.e., college-educated, high income, significant consumers of public policy and business news).

Are we doomed, as a society to a future in which trust in government becomes an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp,” or “old news”? I’d argue that’s not necessarily the case, and that there’s good reason to hope that the movement toward data-informed government may make an enormous difference.

We find ourselves in the enviable position of living in a time of rapidly advancing technological progress that can help enable trust-building solutions. Governments can dismiss old ways of thinking and find ways to engage the public using approaches that involve innovation, technology, science, and inclusiveness.

The digitization of many facets of government has resulted in a data explosion across agencies at all levels of government. That data, however, needs to be synthesized into actionable information to satisfy the growing demands of taxpayers for better results and greater transparency. Recent advances, such as the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, improve public accessibility of data and encourages the development of learning agendas and program evaluation activities. Moves toward leveraging data and analytics to engage the public and to improve government efficiency, effectiveness and accountability appear to be gaining real momentum.

The development of web-based applications providing citizens with direct access to government data (e.g., USAspending.gov, data.gov, dataUSA.io, USAfacts.org) have significantly enhanced transparency and accountability by answering the “what, where and when” questions involving government operations and expenditures.

The “why and how well” questions are more complex. Transparency has its benefits, but government data frequently require sophisticated analysis to yield clear insights. While those applications open up portions of the government’s vast data vault, we need to be thinking about ways to push out actionable information to the public rather than expecting them to gain deep insights by wandering around the vault. There’s a big difference between data transparency and useful information. We need to push more, pull less.

How might governments deliver more information – or at least make it readily available in a useful form – instead of just having it available for folks who have the time and energy to seek it out? Examples of using technology to push information to citizens abound here in the U.S., particularly at the local levels of government. Cities are increasingly delivering on the promise of using data to enable better services, smarter use of tax dollars, and civic engagement. Many illuminating examples are highlighted by organizations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities and Results for America.

A modern approach to governing leverages technology and data to drive iterative, customer-focused engagement that builds trust. While there’s no magical solution to accomplish that goal overnight, the government must view itself as playing a translational role in data analytics, to the point where focus is consistently placed on converting data into engaging, informative, and understandable information. In terms of conveying that info to the public, now is a good time to be pushy.

The contents of this guest column reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc.

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