From Policy to Practice: From Ideas to Results, From Results to Trust

Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
From Policy to Practice: From Ideas to Results, FromResultsto Trust 763
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 5, pp. 763–767. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13051.
Donald F. Kettl
University of Texas at Austin
From Policy to Practice: From Ideas to Results,
From Results to Trust
Abstract: Few areas of public administration have been more discouraging, over a longer period of time, than
the struggle to build public trust in government’s work. However, new research suggests that public administrators
can build trust by improving the results they produce for citizens. Practical, practicable steps can produce big
improvements: improving government’s focus on citizens’ needs; engaging employees; focusing on fairness; and,
especially, concentrating on the delivery of public services at the “retail” level. Citizens, research shows, can
discriminate among levels of government, the administration of different programs in different functional areas,
and the work of individual administrators. That provides strong hope for improving trust, in an era when too often
government appears too untrustworthy.
If we want government to serve the people, the
people must trust the government to serve them.
However, the deepest pathology in American
politics over the last generation has been the steady
decline of trust in public institutions. From a high-
water mark in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the
path of trust in Washington has been downhill,
broken by occasional bits of recovery that have never
lasted long. The war in Vietnam and Watergate
exacted a fierce toll on trust. Then, after it improved
through the Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton years,
it dropped precipitously after the September 11
terrorist attacks, to historic lows in the 2010s
(see figure 1).
Trust varies by governmental institution. It is
highest, by far, for the military. It is middling for the
courts, lower for the presidency, and disastrous for
Congress—only 25 percent of those surveyed trust
Congress’s work “a great deal” or “quite a lot” (see
figure 2). The behavior of members of Congress has
proven especially important in shaping this problem.
A 2013 poll found that Congress was less popular
than head lice and colonoscopies (Matthews 2013).
Trust is higher the closer governments get to the
people, and that trust has been relatively stable
over time: 71 percent of those surveyed trusted
local governments, and 62 percent trusted state
governments. Moreover, those numbers have proven
relatively stable over time (McCarthy 2016).
What is at the bottom of the disturbing trend in trust,
especially at the federal level? And in the more hopeful
findings about trust in state and local governments?
Unpacking this puzzle begins by recognizing that
the problem of trust in government is not just an
American phenomenon. The Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
has explored the puzzle deeply, and its work shows that
“trust in government is deteriorating in many OECD
countries.” This matters, the OECD concludes,
because “lack of trust compromises the willingness of
citizens and business to respond to public policies and
contribute to a sustainable economic recovery.
Among the world’s leading economies, just 43 percent
of citizens trust government (OECD 2018). It is of
little reassurance that the OECD’s data show that the
United States is middling in terms of distrust, near the
global average, higher than Italy and Poland but lower
than Switzerland, Germany, and the Scandinavian
countries. But amid the data is an important
finding: trust—and distrust—are not static. Trust
has improved significantly in some countries, such
as Germany, Iceland, and Israel, while it has fallen
significantly in Spain, Portugal, and Slovenia (see
figure 3). Even though trust has not improved much
in the United States over the last decade, the OECD
data show that trust—and distrust—are not stuck. We
can do better.
Distrust, Income Inequality, and Americans
Left Out
If the good news is that some countries have been
able to build trust among their citizens, the bad news
is that much academic research suggests that the
problem of trust in government is deeply rooted in
Donald F. Kettl is Sid Richardson
Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School
of Public Affairs, University of Texas at
Austin. Previously, he was professor
and dean in the School of Public Policy,
University of Maryland. He is a nonresident
senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance, the
Brookings Institution, and the Partnership
for Public Service. He is the author, most
recently, of
Little Bites of Big Data for Public
(CQ Press, 2017),
Can Governments
Earn Our Trust?
(Polity Press, 2017), and
ThePolitics of the Administrative Process,
(7th ed., CQ Press, 2017).
Stephen E. Condrey
and Tonya Neaves,
Associate Editors

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