Author:Kavanagh, Shayne

Local governments depend on trusting relationships, and fairness is essential to trust. If people feel that they've been treated unfairly, trust breaks down, and they may withhold their support from their local government. This makes it more difficult for the government to maintain a strong financial foundation.

To learn more about how finance officers can enhance their trustworthiness, GFOA surveyed the members of two large state/provincial GFOA associations, asking them to identify other finance officers who were particularly trustworthy. (1) We then conducted face-to-face interviews with the finance officers who received the most nominations, seeking to learn which of their behaviors helped them build trust with others.

Finally, we organized our findings into the five elements of trustworthiness suggested by the GFOA's Code of Ethics ( The code is focused on enhancing the trustworthiness of the local government finance office. One of these five elements is "treating people fairly." In this article, we'll first explore how people perceive fairness and then focus on what we learned in our interviews about treating people fairly.


"Fairness" is a multifaceted concept, and the definition of what is "fair" can differ among people and circumstances. But psychological research provides insights into how people generally conceive of fairness, and finance officers must be mindful of two basic components. (2)

The first is "procedural justice," which concerns the process used in making decisions and distributing resources. Perceptions of procedural justice are influenced by how the decision is being made: Is it objective? Perception is also influenced by how people are treated during the process: Do they have the opportunity for serious input?

The second component is "distributive justice," which means that people get what they deserve and what is fair. In other words, the distribution of resources is equitable (but not necessarily equal). Equitable means that the outcomes that someone experiences (e.g., budget allocation, public services) are roughly proportionate to the inputs they provide. An example of an inequity in local government finance might be a public safety department that consistently gets budget increases, while the other departments get none or are asked to make cuts--even though the public safety department has not provided strong justification that the increases are warranted, and other departments have made a strong case for the services they provide. Another example would be a neighborhood of historically marginalized people that does not get good public services for the taxes they pay, compared to other neighborhoods in the same jurisdiction.

For people to perceive a situation as fair...

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