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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

What the Decline in Public Trust Means for Government

Navy Cmdr. James Lawler, right, a member of the Defense Department medical support team, shows students how to remove their personal protective equipment during training in San Antonio last week. Navy Cmdr. James Lawler, right, a member of the Defense Department medical support team, shows students how to remove their personal protective equipment during training in San Antonio last week. Defense Department

When it comes to dealing with the threat of Ebola, writes Ron Fournier in National Journal today, the problem is trust:

The White House doesn't trust the governors. The governors don't trust the White House. Doctors don't trust nurses. Nurses don't trust hospital administrators. Hospital administrators don't trust federal officials, and the feds don't trust them. Nobody trusts the media. The public trusts nothing.

But other than that, everything’s fine.

Actually, everything’s a fine mess. A Dallas hospital fumbled the first case of Ebola in the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t exactly cover itself in glory, either. So New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decided they would substitute their judgment for that of the public health professionals at the CDC. The president’s response has been to offer repeated reassurances to the public that everything will be fine, and to appoint the latest in a long line of federal czars to manage the crisis.  

The tangled web of responses stems, ultimately, from the trust issues Fournier identifies. The decline in faith in public institutions in recent years is well-documented. But until recently it was largely a political phenomenon, expressed in the form of disgust that Congress and the White House couldn’t agree on how to move the ball forward legislatively on pressing national issues.

Lately, though, the issue has been trust in the institutions of government, from the IRS to the VA to the CDC. A government that can’t build a functioning website to handle the implementation of a massive health insurance marketplace is viewed as at best inept, at worst a threat. In a Politico poll earlier this month of voters in states with hotly contested races this election season, 64 percent said “things in the U.S. feel like they are out of control right now.”

How should government respond? It starts with the president paying attention to managing the institutions of government, and not treating the bureaucracy as an uncontrollable force. In the legislative branch, it means resisting the urge to grandstand and point fingers, and buying in for the long haul on conducting appropriate oversight and crafting measures to address structural problems in the way government is organized and run. And finally, career federal managers and executives must take responsibility for getting the job done right, and ensuring their employees have the running room to devise creative solutions to challenging problems.

Then it’s the public’s turn to adjust its expectations. The demand that government officials solve every problem, smoothly, from the get-go, with no hiccups, is simply unrealistic--particularly in an age when resources are tighter and tighter, while priorities countinue to mount. In situations like the Ebola response, what really counts is flexibility, adaptability and resilience. But if all of these things are viewed as signs of weakness, then leaders will lurch from response to counter-response, shifting policies on the fly as they go. And that will just further the cycle of distrust.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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