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Citizen Trust in Local Government

May 31, 2022

By David Swindell associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs where he directs the Center for Urban Innovation

There is, today, a common lamentation over the deficit of trust not only among citizens, but also between citizens and their governmental institutions. Why is trust important? Simply put, it is the glue that holds a nation together; all of its public institutions and democratic governmental units. Without the framework of trust, economic systems based on any form of exchange will fail. If people do not trust government, why should they pay taxes for services they may not want, determined by elected representatives with whom they disagree?

This was the crux of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in which western Pennsylvania farmers rose up to protest a whiskey tax enacted by the federal government, leading to George Washington’s decision to send in troops for fear that a full-scale revolution was in the works.

The decline in trust is not new. Many scholars point to the Kennedy assassination, the war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal as significant events that may have triggered the downward trend in trust than has continued since then. Of course, a new technology (television) might have played a part in getting these events in front of more people. And today, technology is playing an even more challenging role.

While the federal government is far and away the least-trusted level of government according to repeated surveys, states and localities are not immune. This is particularly true among 18- to 35-year-olds, according to a 2021 study by Deloitte, which also found that unemployment insurance, departments of motor vehicles, and law enforcement are among the least trusted state agencies.

This generation has grown up surrounded by social media. In and of itself, social media is neither good or bad. However, as it has developed in the U.S., individuals can use it anonymously. That anonymity also undermines trust just as much as the misinformation promulgated on social media outlets.

The tech effect does not stop there. Today, we are witnessing the increased use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and algorithms as the next logical step in the push for increased efficiencies in government and industry. China has embraced this with a national system of surveillance utilizing facial recognition software along with millions of cameras to track individual behaviors and calculate “social credit” scores to incentivize good behavior and trust by having the government punish low scorers considered untrustworthy.

Such an overt system would meet privacy resistance currently in the U.S., but these tools already exist and are in use here in different ways. As local governments experiment and innovate with new systems contracted from private companies, the decision algorithms owned by those companies are proprietary and provide limited options for appeal due to the lack of transparency in how a decision gets made. Anonymity and opaque decision-making systems are antithetical to building trust.

So, what can we do? The easiest place to start rebuilding trust is at the local level where people engage with one another most directly. The French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville traveled throughout much of the young United States in the 1830s trying to understand why America was having a much better run at a democratic republic than was France.

He was often amazed at how Americans so easily came together in small groups or associations to address some collective problem without resort to a government. He found this a profound strength and made it a centerpiece of his work, noting: “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”

If the republic and the democratic principles on which it rests are important to the people, we must take proactive steps to shore up the frayed civic fabric and rebuild that trust without which there can be no science of association, and there can be no government of, by, and for the people. We do not have the luxury of simply throwing up our hands in despair. But we have many role models who have soldiered on in times of terrible political strife to strengthen our democratic principles. And, as Tocqueville implies, we can most easily begin the process right in our own communities.

We already have numerous neighborhood associations and similar civic groups dedicated to bringing people together who share a community. They have no formal power and attendance at such meetings is not highly representative. But what if we could envision ways to vest those kinds of organizations with decision authority over small scale public services like curb and sidewalk repair prioritization, being the first line of defense for the land use plan when variances come up, or conducting participatory budgeting exercises?

Might that investiture of authority incentivize citizens to come back to the civic space, engage with one another, learn the “science of association,” and maybe provide a first step to rebuild that sense of trust so critical for a healthy and vibrant republic? That notion is far from a panacea for distrust in local government, but I believe it could be a good first step.

The contents of this blog post reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of the GFRC.