How to Regain and Maintain Trust in Public Institutions

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For decades, trust in government and public institutions has been eroding.

Distrust has accelerated in recent years. This is troubling, as confidence in public institutions is integral to democracy and a strong social fabric. Polls reflect that a majority of Canadians are suspicious and distrustful of politicians and government. There exists a gap between public organizations and citizens that appears to be widening. How can this disturbing trend be reversed?

If the public does not trust government, whom does it trust? Polls show trust in private businesses is higher than for governmental institutions. In fact, people tend to see businesses as more likely to improve society. However, it must be noted that this confidence does not extend to CEOs, senior executives, administrators and media spokespeople. The public is more likely to listen to employees of a company, fellow consumers or influential podcasters/blog writers.

This overall higher trust in the business world might indicate that the government needs to openly and transparently include business sectors in debates about policy. The more stakeholders that are included in public decision making, the better. Partnering with businesses in a way that helps them flourish and serve the public, while also negotiating necessary regulations, can only be beneficial. This helps to shake off the image of government as unimpassioned regulators out to quash entrepreneurship.

Polls have revealed that local governments and community-elected public officials are more trusted than those at the federal level. Town halls held by local politicians will allow citizens to feel a part of government. Furthermore, trust increases among individuals who are better informed and engaged. Transparency and information sharing are crucial. Regular updates and information sessions help to bridge the gap between the public and government that is so pervasive today.

The answers are deceptively simple yet will not be instantly achieved. The more people learn about what happens within an organization or government body, the more favorably it is judged. The challenge is for those in public service to meet the standards set by the public they serve, and for citizens to use available channels to inform themselves and be engaged in public policy.

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The topic of this article is derived from the curriculum for the SEEC program Masters Certificate in Public Sector Leadership (starting Feb. 3, 2020).

This program is designed to equip today’s government and public-sector leaders with the skills and competencies critical to establishing frameworks of governance that will encourage innovation and ensure best practices throughout their organizations.

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