Building Trust in Government One Problem at a Time

Public administration needs a new social contract.

“.... establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” (Preamble, U.S. Constitution)

The soaring aspirations of our Constitution are indisputable. So too, unfortunately, are the failures to deliver on those promises to all Americans. Today’s headlines say it all. Despite the fact that more than 3 million Americans have been infected with COVID 19, confusion abounds in miscommunicated public health guidance; testing and tracing are implemented unevenly and unfairly; businesses have whiplash from guidance to open, then close; and treatment and recovery tracks along the massive divides of insured and uninsured Americans and centuries of unequal access to healthcare.

In addition, despite decades of police reform efforts in communities across the country aimed at protecting all Americans from excessive use of force, Black Americans today are killed by police at more than double the rate of white Americans. The recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are only two examples of police brutality that has gone unchecked for too many years. Given the failure of government over many decades to deliver for all Americans, it is not surprising that Americans’ trust in the federal government is at rock-bottom levels. Few trust government to do what is right ‘just about always’ (3%) or even “most of the time” (14%).” Trust in government by Black Americans is only half of that.

This is one of the reasons that the National Academy of Public Administration identified “developing new approaches to public governance and engagement” as one of the 12 Grand Challenges in Public Administration

Public administrators can help improve trust in government and help rebuild our social contract. Effective public administration focused on strengthening the connection between citizens and government administrators, especially through citizens’ daily interactions with government, can earn trust. In fact, recent research shows that two-thirds of citizens’ trust in government depends on their customer experience.

Restoring trust in government starts with getting government service right—one local problem at a time, one public administrator at a time. Confidence that government will deliver services fairly can foster a deeper trust in government to govern fairly. It starts with the local and the immediate. Consider the following:

All crises are local. Americans experience crises locally and personally, and they view government in the same way. Jobs are lost or businesses are impacted, freedoms are clipped, people get sick, property is damaged, gas is more expensive, medicine is expensive or hard to get. They interact with police, have their garbage picked up, receive health care, turn on the tap for water, and drive on local roads. Government works best when it solves the problems that citizens want to have solved, and that happens in neighborhoods and communities. Public administration’s biggest challenge is getting those building-block relationships right. That, in fact, is the driving lesson of our most recent crises, ranging from the pandemic to police brutality. 

Public administration is a conduit to workable solutions. No one administrative organization can address a public problem without working with other government agencies and private partners. In short, they must be able to collaborate while creating a transparent path from citizens’ needs to governmental solutions. We’ve seen that in the challenge for measuring the number of COVID-19 positive tests in the community; translating that into what public health steps communities need to take, and providing first-rate health care to those affected by the virus--including those who the current healthcare system too often leave on the sidelines. In problem-solving mode, public administrators link departments and resources; they connect citizens to solutions; and they create transparency for everyone involved in the process.

Focus on retail trust as a building block to wholesale trust. Trust in government, at the wholesale level, is in serious trouble. But effective action at the community level, with government providing effective and equitable solutions to citizens’ needs, can generate retail trust. The path to a new social contract starts with good solutions to day-to-day problems. Workable solutions to public problems that can be formalized in policy among pragmatic politicians can ultimately provide islands of consensus.

Leverage what is best about public administration. Fundamentally, public administration exists to solve problems. At every level of government, finding a path forward is the art of administration. The problems people experience directly are typically local, and local solutions are built from gritty reality and immediate circumstances. The job of government at the top is to make sure these front-line solutions work effectively and fairly.

Many of the biggest problems of trust and in delivering on government’s social contract with citizens flow from problems of public administration. That’s the bad news. Yet the good news is strong and heartening: Effective public administration, with a focus on building strong and equitable government from the bottom up, can not only renew government’s work, but also earn citizen trust and reweave the social contract.

Anne Khademian, Presidential Fellow at Virginia Tech, and Donald Kettl, the Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, are the authors of the forthcoming book, Public Administration: Building a New Social Contract. Both are Fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration.