Assessing Trust in Cross-Agency Networks

Trust between federal partners isn’t always good, and distrust isn’t always bad.

“Trust but verify” was President Reagan’s mantra during the Cold War. Today, trust is a key element to creating effective cross-agency networks to get things done. But what, exactly, is trust, and how do you know what to look for?

Addressing public management challenges increasingly requires collaborative networks across a range of agencies and nongovernmental organizations. The Obama administration has designated a series of projects as cross agency priority goals and put networks in place to manage them. A lot of literature and practical experience show that a key element of success in any collaborative effort is the ability to create and sustain trust among stakeholders.

New research by a pair of European academics, Peter Oomsels and Geert Bouckaert, provides an interesting and nuanced assessment framework that can help “boundary spanners”—such as the cross-agency goal leaders at the federal level—to dissect what works in different situations and contexts.

The authors say interorganizational trust is “a very important factor for successful cooperation in networked contexts . . . Trust facilitates, solidifies and increases the performance of interorganizational cooperation in complex decision-making networks.” But what does it mean to trust?

What is Trust?

There is a wide range of definitions of trust in academic literature, depending on the discipline of the author (e.g., sociology, public administration, management, economics, or psychology). These definitions include “faith in people’s motivations and capacities” and “willingness to assume an open, vulnerable position” and “a set of expectations shared by everyone involved in an exchange.” Oomsels and Bouckaert catalog 36 definitions, noting “some of the definitions . . . refer to trust as an expectation, others conceptualize it as an attitude, and still others formulate trust as behavior.” They then offer their own definition: “The intentional and behavioral suspension of vulnerability by a trustor on the basis of positive expectations of a trustee.”

Probably the most pragmatic is behavior-based trust, in which “trust is only involved when the trusting expectation makes a difference to a decision,” the authors say. “Behavioral trust can therefore be seen as observable risk-taking behavior in a relational exchange process.”

The Value of Trust vs. Distrust

Interestingly, the authors conclude that reducing trust does not necessarily result in distrust. They see these two phenomena as resulting from different value bases. For them, the continuum of trust (hope, faith, confidence, etc.) is different from the continuum of distrust (fear, skepticism, cynicism, wariness, etc.). “Both trust and distrust can be desirable assets in public administration as long as they provide social value,” they say. “But neither is desirable or undesirable in and of itself.”

The authors note: “Trust is becoming ever more important in public administration because increasingly complex public problems transgress the boundaries of rationality of single organizations, therefore requiring cooperation and governance.” They go on to observe the benefits of trust-intensive environments are “increased innovation, learning, organizational performance and effective cooperation . . . the major functionality of trust lies in its potential for cost-effective goal-oriented collaboration.”

But the authors caution: “Interorganizational trust is not always functional, and distrust is not always dysfunctional.” Too much trust can lead to inefficiencies or corruption, with opportunities for abuse. This seems to have been the case with the General Services Administration conference spending scandal several years ago, as well as the recent Veterans Affairs Department hospital scheduling scandal. The leaders involved trusted their staffs too much.

While some degree of distrust is appropriate, there are costs. “Distrust is associated with atomized action due to the intentional and behavioral avoidance of vulnerability, in which actors either withdraw from interactions or rely on an array of strategies to constrain contingency, risk and vulnerability,” the authors write. “Distrust-inspired strategies are functional in a world of untrustworthy partners.”

Interestingly, in many cases of governmental collaboration, both high trust and high distrust is the most prevalent relationship between participating agencies. In these cases, the trustors are confident about some aspects or levels of their relationship with a trustee, but are suspicious about other aspects. This is especially the case when two sets of actors have both common and competing objectives. Consider the coordination between the State and Defense departments in Afghanistan, for example. In this case, the actors are apt to calculate the costs and benefits of cooperation and exchange.

Assessing Trust in a Collaboration

Often, executives who find themselves in the role of boundary spanner find they have to calculate the costs and benefits of collaborating with other partners. The authors offer a framework for making these subjective evaluations of trust and distrust. They say it needs to be done at three different levels in any relationship:

  • The macro level of socializing institutional arrangements
  • The meso-level of concrete interaction characteristics
  • The micro-level of specific individual characteristics

Macro-level: institution-based trust. Oomsels and Bouckaert observe that “institutional arrangements can act as both supports and impediments to trust . . . Institution-based trust plays an important role in large and fragmented organizations because it forms a bridge between actors unfamiliar with one another by establishing a ‘world in common’ through formal and informal norms of behavior.”

Some observers call this organizational culture, but it can be more than that. The authors say institutional trust can also be process-based, characteristic-based, or institution-based. Processes, for example, might include contracts, standards of performance, audits and controls. Characteristics of the actors (such as being in a common profession like financial management) mean that “roles can allow boundary spanners to adopt trust even in the absence of personalized knowledge,” the authors say. Also, institutions can establish trust directly or indirectly by how they socialize boundary spanners, or create rules based on shared understandings of appropriate behavior.

Meso-level: relation- and calculus-based trust. Macro-level institutions support trust by creating bridges between actors who don’t know each other, but meso-level trust builds on familiarity between actors who have regular and ongoing interactions. Here, the authors explain, trust is generated on the basis of “relation-specific familiarity, information, characteristics and dynamics.”

Oomsels and Bouckaert say relation-based trust and distrust are more emotional. Under the calculus-based trust approach, trustors rationally weigh the costs and benefits of certain courses of action in interactive settings—often with incomplete information about trustees—with the aim of maximizing their own benefits. Such information can be gleaned from performance reports or audits. In this case, the authors say, “an actor is trusted when it is perceived that that actor has an interest in continuing a certain relationship.”

Micro-based: individual predispositions. There is a ample literature and training around the role and characteristics of boundary spanners as individuals. Recent IBM Center reports, for example, include a guide for senior executives as boundary spanners as well as a guide for creating collaborative networks. Oomsels and Bouckaert say “boundary spanners’ subjective evaluations are also influenced by their own individual trusting or distrusting predispositions.”

An Assessment Framework

Given these three dimensions, it is clear that agency leaders who find themselves in the position of assessing the health of a collaborative or cross-agency network need a framework to gauge the degree of trust and distrust among key stakeholders.

Oomsels and Bouckaert have developed an assessment framework (an appendix to the article published in the Public Performance and Management Review). It helps boundary spanners identify the underlying basis of “the capacity of administrative systems for administrational trust and distrust.” Using the assessment framework to gauge the degree of trust or distrust in any interorganizational setting should help these leaders see how strategies supporting trust differ from those aimed at reducing distrust.

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