Public trust in governments has fallen after years of pandemic measures and communications, along with other major challenges including inflation, labour shortages, and extreme weather events. For people who deliver digital government services, maintaining public trust is a difficult dance: not only do the services themselves gain or lose trust on their own merit, but the users’ perceptions of politicians and digital privacy colour their interactions, too.
Trying to navigate those pitfalls can be overwhelming. But understanding what exactly the problems are, and what can actually be done with them, is what Button’s Jaimie Park is setting out to do in her November 1st keynote speech at the upcoming FWD50 conference in Ottawa and online. In it, Jaimie outlines what the stakes are in both the short- and long-term when services aren’t seen as reliable, usable, and trustworthy. But she also lays out how trust can be fostered through being honest and reciprocal with the public about not only current services, but the history of how services have been delivered to them and how they’ve been affected.
That acknowledgement requires investing time and resources in both better engagement and better record-keeping—which can lead to a living system where the people in the community build and share the knowledge that helps government continually learn how to serve them better.
Public trust can be a convoluted thing, especially when it comes to governments. People relate to the political aspect of government and the civil-services aspect of government differently, but feelings about one can affect perception of the other. Residents’ feelings on the names and faces they’re seeing on the many, many lawn signs this month and their feelings on that time they tried to renew a license at city hall mingle together into an overall view of their local government.
When it comes to delivering digital government services to the public, each word in that phrase brings its own pitfalls: people may be wary of how their digital information is being used, people may arrive with concerns about the government or a branch of it, and people may have (or have already had) frustrations trying to access a service. Trying to navigate those pitfalls can be overwhelming. But understanding what exactly the problems are, and what can actually be done with them, is what Button’s Jaimie Park is setting out to do in her keynote at the upcoming FWD50 conference running November 1-3 in Ottawa and online.
What makes up public trust?
Trust can also be split into perception of reliability and perception of intent. Does a person trust a service to be available and navigable? And do they trust that the provider is not trying to trick or exploit them? With digital services, the latter concern often comes in the context of data collection. But it also touches on broader distrust of the institution—warranted or not.
“Government can be perfectly well-intentioned; government can be reliable,” Park says, “But if we’re not communicating that, if the perception is untrustworthy, or if it looks like we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing, then it doesn’t really matter.”
“If we’re not clear about why we’re asking for certain information and what our goals are with our services, that can breed mistrust, because people can often be worried that it’s connected back to political interests, rather than the interests of citizens.”
For her, overcoming that risk requires being clear about what information is being used for and why, and involving the public more in designing services so that more people understand the processes and their intent. Doing so can save money and improve services—but failing to foster and maintain trust has significant downsides.
What are the consequences of losing trust?
Government services by their nature involve some of the most important parts of life that people have to navigate. When a person tries and fails to navigate a service that is malfunctioning, obtuse, or that they feel is unsafe, they end up losing access to that service at that time—in some cases a crucial service such as accessing housing, or health-care. But their access to it may also be reduced in the future, too, if they have come to distrust the process, department, or institution as a result.
One person’s bad experience can also go on to deter others, and failing to serve them also harms the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the whole system. When service works well, and is accurate and timely, that means “we’re spending less time, on our side.” Park says that “delivering those services means that denizens are not reaching out to a bunch of staff asking questions, or voicing their complaints, or going to many different places to find that one thing that they're looking for”—things that burn both parties’ time and capacity.
Trust is also difficult to rebuild. A 2021 OECD study on public trust that has become one of the main recent touchstones in the field points to sobering historical data on this, including the whole decade it took for public trust levels to recover after the 2008 financial crisis. “That’s why touch points matter,” Park says, “and why every interaction with every service matters.”
Maintaining that faith from members of the public, and that continued engagement from them, is what keeps government running as it’s intended to. “We need more engagement with government; we need citizens to be providing their opinions,” Park says, “but people are losing trust in the system itself at this point, which can directly hinder the reputation of services and denizens’ desire to collaborate with program areas.”
Poorly-done consultations, poorly-explained policy changes, and other flawed communications can also lead to consequences for not just the government but also parts of the public. Engagement that doesn’t help different segments of the community understand the issue and the different perspectives on it can risk polarizing different sides of the community against one another.
“It’s way bigger than just physical services. Connecting with each other and empathizing with each other, seeing alternate perspectives, is something that we need a lot more of. There’s also the added benefit of open engagement with communities and with groups together—people not just submitting their one opinion, but hearing each other’s opinions too—we become healthier as a community.”
What can foster trust? An honest overview of the past
Park believes that the keys to building and maintaining trust involve both making current processes more reciprocal and incorporating more understanding of past engagement.
User experience work now largely recognizes that rather than there being a standard user who can be designed for, there needs to be an anticipation of various types of users with different needs and different ways of interacting with digital services. But Park emphasizes that users need to also be understood specifically in terms of their and their communities’ particular past experiences with government services.
This applies to populations that have historically been underserved and mistreated by government services, such as Indigenous peoples, as well as to any given service’s pool of long-time users. New engagements and overhauls need to be understood as emerging from a lineage of past approaches and users’ experiences with them—as evolutions of the relationship rather than reboots.
To understand this history of the relationship, organizations also need to prioritize building out their organizational memory. After all, many of the service design workers have themselves been through various iterations of what they do.
“So many people have been in the public service system for so long that they become disillusioned,” Park says, “They’ve been through so many, many different phases of what government could be.” Some of those phases last, and others are soon undone or replaced.
“If we don’t document our decisions, and document our learnings, often they can just end there. There’s a power in being able to remember what we’ve done in the past and why we’ve done it, so we can choose to continue doing those things or to mindfully pivot.”
Building more trusting, holistic systems for today and tomorrow
Gathering and analyzing organizational history takes effort, and often funding. But the good news is that the practices that build more current trust also feed back into building shared memory for the future.
“Using digital transformation methods like human-centered design, we are consistently recording and iterating and learning from our work. That becomes kind of like instant organizational memory because there’s so much documentation around it.”
The communities of practice that form around design and digital transformation also become a broader network of constant sharing and iterating. Meanwhile, moving toward more reciprocal relationships with people using services allows them to participate more in future planning of what those services will look like. While trust can be lost by engagement that was sporadic or not followed up on, broadened engagement that checks in with communities regularly also ends up making the community members fellow keepers of the service’s history.
“Through engagement, the public is a huge database of organizational memory and organizational history,” Park says, “The more that we’re able to be open about what government is doing, the more the public can own that, think about it, and respond back, it becomes more of a discussion and a living, breathing thing that we’re able to collectively own together.”
Still, actually making these broader shifts involves a lot of detail. Change in large institutions can be slow and complex, and making lasting shifts requires efficient choices—and building trust in the process. In Park’s keynote, she’ll delve further into the nuances of how both leadership and those developing and delivering services can put into practice these shifts toward systems that are more trusted and have better memories. See it on November 1st, 10:15AM to 11:15AM, at the FWD50 conference in Ottawa and online.