State and Local Government Beats out Federal in Survey of Citizen Trust Rehg

Digital services had a strong impact on whether residents found governments trustworthy, according to the report from Deloitte.

People tend to feel more positively about state and local government than they do about the federal government, and that trust increases with positive interactions online and strong protections for personal data, according to new research. 

In general, citizens reported the highest levels of trust in their local governments, followed by state and then federal, according to the report, which from the consulting and advisory firm Deloitte released earlier this week. That may be due in part to the more visible role that local governments have assumed during the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers said.

“Decisions made by local government on various issues ranging from education and housing to public safety tend to directly impact people,” they wrote. “More recently, state and local governments have been in the front line of Covid-19 response, managing the supply of necessary medical equipment as well as restoring the economy, which could be a major factor impacting present levels of trust in state and local governments.”

The report is based on the results of an April survey that asked 6,152 people nationwide about their trust in different levels of government. Noting that trust is a subjective concept, researchers aimed to assess respondents’ confidence and faith in government by asking about “their views on how 16 different government agencies and departments across 41 states performed on four trust signals: humanity, transparency, capability, and reliability.” 

Each signal was assigned a numerical value based on whether a respondent reported high, mid-level or low trust, which researchers used to gauge overall trust in each government entity.

In addition to trusting their local governments more than state and federal ones, respondents tended to have more faith in individual agencies, rather than the overall institution of government, regardless of their age, ethnic background or income level. State agencies, for example, received an overall trust score of 26, while state government as a whole scored a 6. 

“This again points to the ‘perceptive’ nature of trust, since trust in an agency might be based on interactions, but perceptions of the abstraction of ‘state government’ are more likely to be associated with the politics of state government and influenced by media reports,” the analysis says.

Of the 16 agencies included in the survey, respondents reported the highest levels of trust in child care services, housing assistance and food assistance programs, while they tended to have the least confidence in unemployment insurance programs, departments of motor vehicles and law enforcement. 

Recent events may have influenced those responses, researchers noted. 

For example,  unemployment agencies made headlines throughout the past year for problems with delays delivering benefits, as well as instances of widespread fraud.  

Likewise, law enforcement agencies saw public trust plummet in the wake of high-profile cases of police misconduct and subsequent protests, including nationwide demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Respondents also tended to trust government more if they were pleased with its digital services, including adequate safeguarding of their personal data and easy-to-access web-based platforms for things like service requests or bill payments. Reliable digital services make government agencies feel more accessible to citizens, a key measure of trust among respondents, the report said.

“Citizens tend to trust proximate government more than distant government. By design, digital services make distant services more proximate, creating a direct interaction,” it added. “Because digital is now a first point of interaction for government to generate a positive impression, a positive online experience and secure and user-friendly services can be very important.” 

Researchers offered several tips for governments and agencies to improve trust among residents, including prioritizing digital service delivery, proactively increasing transparency and identifying other areas of concern. Taking steps to ensure that citizens have confidence in their governments can increase service delivery and other outcomes, the report concludes.

“Higher trust in government may also help agencies to be more successful in their missions, as increased trust may lead to desirable behaviors such as greater compliance with regulators, participation in optional programs, and engagement with government,” it said. “Strong trust can enable greater government effectiveness, while low trust can increase costs and make it more difficult to achieve desired outcomes.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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