Local Government’s Public Trust Puzzle

Horrible derailments are not reserved for commuter trains. Americans’ trust of the two major candidates for president has crashed, too. The good news is that not everything believed about national candidates or national conditions is believed about local government. Across America, we have tested how much or how little tens of thousands of residents trust their local government by asking them to rate how well their jurisdiction acts in the best interest of their community, welcomes resident involvement, treats all residents fairly and the extent to which residents like the overall direction of the community, have confidence and believe in the honesty of local government and receive valuable services for the taxes paid.

According to our analysis of this index of confidence among 80,000 residents of over 100 communities, about half of all Americans give excellent or good ratings to each of those public trust survey questions. That crushes the percent of Americans that trusts either of the main presidential candidates. However, with just half of residents giving positive ratings to public trust, the dimension of community quality resides at the bottom of ratings for other characteristics of community such as the community as a place to live, raise children, visit or retire. For these community qualities, at least two out of three Americans give excellent or good ratings.

With trust of local government just “OK” and, at the same time, representing the backbone of a willing democracy, we wanted to explore the linkages to public trust in communities across the U.S. Who trusts local government most and in what kinds of communities is confidence in local government maximized?

Accessing tens of thousands of Americans’ responses to The National Citizen Survey as our database of opinion, we found this:

The longer a person lived in a community, the less trust he or she had in local government.

We suspected that, because length of residency was linked to income and age – those living longer in a place often would be older and have more income – our finding that trust ebbed with longer residency might be due to people getting more curmudgeonly as they age and more demanding (or entitled) as they earn more money over the years.

The data proved those stereotypes of the aged and wealthy to be wrong.

In fact, older residents and residents with higher incomes tend to report trusting their local governments more than do younger residents or residents with lower income. So when we control for the age and wealth of people, as well as other community characteristics, residents who, say, live in a community for over 20 years have much less trust of the local government than do those who live in the community for between 6 and 10 years. And this is for people with about the same age and income.

Our research also shows that residents who live in a community longer compared to newer residents more often engage in community-centered activities, expose themselves more to news about local goings-on and give higher ratings to local government services. But they trust local government less!

What’s going on here?

Could it be that the longer one lives in a community, the more likely one will be affected by some community struggle – a zoning change that could increase the density in the neighborhood, a proposed round-about on the way to work, a prairie dog colony relocation. Even if conflicts are handled fairly by government staff and even if the resident is always on the winning side (if there are sides), much of the local chatter around a community problem includes the arguments of disgruntled residents and those pleased with the solutions.

Conflict, though ubiquitous and necessary in democratic societies, can be corrosive, especially if local governments attend more to solving the problem than creating a field of dispute that honors winners and losers. Earlier research conducted by National Research Center, Inc. has shown that public trust declines for those who more often attend community meetings, because, we surmised, community meetings typically attract residents when problems arise.

To avoid the local government syndrome “to know it is to hate it,” staff should engage longtime residents in debriefing the factors that enhance or diminish their public trust and adapt those concerns to improve confidence. The public trust puzzle is worth solving because revenue-raising votes, volunteerism and resident self-sacrifice for the common good may depend on it.


Submitted by Thomas I Miller

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One thought on “Local Government’s Public Trust Puzzle

  1. Good post.
    Here’s what I’ve learned in 14 years of local government service.
    1) Longtime citizens do become engaged when an issue impacts their neighborhood, travel routes, etc. They don’t want change unless the change benefits them. In Washington state, the legislature has dictated the counties plan for growth without significantly impacting rural and natural environments. This means densification of urban areas, smaller lots, more houses or apartments. Often, long term residents don’t want this in their neighborhood or near them.
    2) Rule changes. Few recognize that new federal and state regulations are passed down to local officials to implement and enforce. When an individual comes to local government for a building permit for remodel their house, for example, they don’t understand why they must meet recently adopted energy codes. And, when staff tries to be understanding and explanatory, often these folks get angry at the person in front of them. It’s interesting the local government gets to bear the brunt of rules made by those in Washington, D.C. and state capitals. A piece of advice for staff would be explain where the rules comes from and tell them to contact their legislator.
    Again, great post.
    Larry

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