About 70% of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time in the early 1960s, and that has dropped to around 20%.

About 70% of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time in the early 1960s, and that has dropped to around 20%. LUNAMARINA / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Trust in the federal government is in a tailspin. Here’s how agencies can rebuild it.

COMMENTARY | Agencies must prove they are competent and support values such as transparency.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy made a bold statement. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth," he said in a joint address to Congress.

Today, people might not put much faith in such a promise. At the time, however, polling from the Pew Research Center showed that more than 70% of Americans believed the federal government would do the right thing “just about always.” Such trust made it possible to muster the resources and talent to achieve the president’s pledge.   

Government needs this same level of trust now to cope with global pandemics, supply chain crises, opioid epidemics, rising food and gas prices, and a host of difficult cultural challenges. Alas, the same poll shows that trust in government to do what is right always or most of the time has fallen off a cliff, dropping to around 20% in 2022.  

The Trust Barometer, produced by global communications firm Edelman, confirms this trend. “The United States and United Kingdom …. have done nothing to improve their trust standing and will need to take more proactive measures if their current administrations want to be more confident about surviving the next election cycle,” a summary of the 2022 findings states.

The first step in addressing this problem is acknowledging its significance. Although it may appear daunting, with numerous external factors affecting Americans' trust in the government, there are strategies within the reach of executive branch agencies that can help reverse this decline. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international policy forum dedicated to improving market economies and trade, has created a valuable framework for strengthening trust in government. Two crucial components are competence and support for values such as transparency.

Competence involves ensuring that governments are responsive and reliable. Responsive governments should provide efficient, high-quality, affordable, timely and citizen-centered public services. Reliable governments should anticipate needs and respond effectively to evolving challenges. Values such as openness, integrity and fairness are also instrumental in fostering higher trust in government. Emphasizing these drivers can guide our approach to addressing the decline in trust.

One way the federal government can demonstrate competence is by giving Americans a better experience when they interact with executive branch agencies. The Biden administration is investing significant time and resources into transforming service delivery, particularly during significant life events when individuals need government assistance the most. It is crucial for the entire government, both the executive and legislative branches, to commit to these initiatives and measure their impact not only on specific customer experiences but also on overall trust in government.

The government can also show that it is competent and reliable by developing policies based on rigorous evidence of what works. A 2018 law called the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act required federal agencies to make plans to gather more data to help evaluate programs and inform potential changes. Now, it is imperative to use the evidence collected through this process effectively.

The extent of fraud in government programs also reflects poorly on agencies’ integrity and competence. Although the federal government has made significant progress in measuring the extent of improper payments to program beneficiaries, the problem seems to be worsening. The federal government made an estimated $247 billion in improper payments in fiscal 2022, totaling nearly $2.4 trillion in improper payments over the past 20 years, the Government Accountability Office found. The government should redouble its efforts to address this clear waste, immediately.

Another issue is that, unfortunately, many programs fail to reach the people or communities that need them the most. This undermines confidence that the government allocates benefits fairly, particularly among traditionally underserved communities. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic serves as one example. The Paycheck Protection Program to provide financial relief favored businesses with existing banking relationships, leaving many minority-owned firms struggling to access support. To rebuild trust, the government must ensure that all programs, including disaster relief and education initiatives, are accessible to everyone, especially those in traditionally underserved communities.

Transparency in government operations is a final, crucial component of fostering trust. The federal government already shares a vast amount of information about its activities publicly. For instance, USASpending.gov provides transparency on all government financial transactions, and agency performance and accountability reports track how programs are doing annually, or sometimes even more frequently.

Information the government shares should continue to reinforce openness and honesty. Moving forward, the government should keep focusing on meaningful transparency that conveys information about performance in accessible and useful ways. It should also seek to engage the public in understanding the importance of this information. Government should tell the story and make it easier for the media to report tangible progress, not simply the latest political dust-up.

We encourage those working to improve government to prioritize efforts focused on enhancing efficiency, reliability, transparency and communication. By doing so, we can not only transform government operations but also move toward rebuilding trust. We are committed to this cause and invite others to join us.

G. Edward DeSeve is the coordinator of the Agile Government Center at the National Academy of Public Administration and an executive fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Srikant Sastry is managing partner of advisory services at Cherry Bekaert.