How better digital services can build trust in local government February 17, 2021

How better digital services can build trust in local government

February 17, 2021

When it comes to the public’s trust in government, Matt Broffman has seen all the polls and surveys. Americans’ trust in their national government has been sliding for generations, while trust in local government, by comparison, generally remains high.

Broffman, the chief innovation officer for the city of Orlando, Fla., reasoned that city halls have an advantage as the level of government closest to the people. Still, he wondered: Is it possible for local government to earn even more trust from residents? And, if so, how would you know if you’ve done it?

Broffman’s background is in the data-driven world of customer experience and digital services, where it’s common to ask customers what they think. So as part of a digital transformation initiative, he began integrating surveys into dozens of city services, from reserving a park to requesting a new trash bin, and worked with staff to follow up quickly on complaints. In addition to asking customers about their experience, the surveys also asked the big question Broffman wanted to know: “How much trust or distrust do you have in the City of Orlando when it comes to handling local problems?” 

The result is something every local leader should pay attention to. From 2018 to 2020, the percentage of respondents saying they have some or a lot of trust in Orlando city government went up from 64 percent to 76 percent. Satisfaction also is going up—although Broffman points out that satisfaction and trust are not necessarily the same thing. A customer who is denied a parking ticket appeal, for example, may not like having to pay the ticket but appreciate a transparent and easy process for doing so. “Sometimes people are just not going to be satisfied,” Broffman said. “But they ought to still trust you.”

Digital opportunity

Broffman’s push to measure and build trust is one of the most ambitious efforts of its kind—Orlando recently won an innovation award from Harvard’s Technology and Entrepreneurship Center for the effort. But Orlando isn’t the only city betting that better digital services can build trust with residents. Cities across the U.S. and around the world are finding that the tools of digital transformation—specifically, getting frequent feedback from users—helps put residents at the center of their efforts to improve services. 

The need is only growing more urgent. A year of COVID crisis, economic collapse, reckoning over racial injustice, and election-related unrest have put new strains on people’s trust in public-sector leaders and institutions. At the same time, long-sputtering efforts to move local services online are now accelerating rapidly during the pandemic due to the need for social distancing.

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In Mobile, Ala., Terrance Smith is optimistic that a new digital service will build trust with minority- and women-owned businesses by giving them a better shot at landing city contracts. These businesses are, by law, supposed to secure at least 15 percent of the city’s business. Nevertheless, it’s been a struggle to get past 7 percent, Smith said. “Most of the people within that category just didn’t have trust in government or believe that government was here to help,” he explained. “They thought we’d only give contracts to wealthy, white business owners.”

Smith, director of Mobile’s innovation team, partnered with the city’s Office of Supplier Diversity and a website platform called Qwally. Using the i-team’s human-centered design process, they listened to business owners’ concerns about the process of getting certified as a disadvantaged business enterprise—including the need to visit City Hall multiple times to fill out paperwork and clear airport-like security each time. Based on that feedback, they built a website that uses plain language to walk business owners through the steps. Smith says the contracting rate for these businesses is now up to 12 percent and growing. 

“The system works for them now just as much as it works for the guy who has all the social and political capital,” Smith said. “They were the co-creators. It was built with them coming in, talking about how they feel about the system, and their level of tech skills. All of that went into it.”

Building trust in Europe

A similar dynamic around trust is playing out across the Atlantic. Twenty European capital cities are working on building their digital services capabilities through a Bloomberg Philanthropies digital innovation initiative, including eight that are engaged in year-long digital transformation projects.

“From Budapest to Vilnius, European city leaders are negotiating what it takes to earn residents’ trust through new ways of working,” said Louise Ellaway of Bloomberg Philanthropies. “With digital, there’s an opportunity to deliver better results at a rapid pace—but it requires involving residents in every step of service design and building more of a two-way relationship.”

[Read: In Tallinn, engaging residents at the right time on urban planning]

In Dublin, Ireland, for example, city leaders are taking a human-centered approach to fix longstanding problems with housing maintenance. For about 25,000 residents living in social housing, the city is functionally a landlord and responsible for fixing everything from leaky faucets to broken boilers. The process for tracking repairs, now mostly on paper, breaks down in ways that make it difficult for tenants to know when their problem will be fixed and for city leaders to manage the work effectively.

“These issues have led to low levels of trust between tenants and ourselves," said Pauline Treacy, Acting Executive Manager for the Dublin City Council’s Corporate Services and Transformation Department. “There's a disconnect around how housing maintenance actually works.”

For the Dublin digital services team, that distrust showed up when they went out to interview tenants to get their views on how to fix housing maintenance. Tenants were reluctant to engage and skeptical that local government would want their feedback. They eventually got about a dozen tenants to open up in interviews. They also interviewed city staff involved in housing administration, as well as tradespeople in the maintenance depot who do the repairs.

The biggest insight from these discussions: Communication, up-and-down the chain, is busted. 

The Dublin team is tackling these problems on several fronts. First up is to refresh a tenant handbook that lays out which maintenance tasks are the city’s responsibility and which are the tenants’—which is one source of communication confusion. Other work streams include finding ways to capture more detail about repair requests when they come in, and to manage those requests more holistically on the back end so that everyone from housing managers to tenants have more visibility into the status of maintenance requests.

As Treacy puts it: “We hope the steps we’re putting in place—using digital, updating jobs, being clear about what we’re going to do, what they’re going to do, and expectations around it—that we build up a level of trust with our tenants so that they’re happier to engage with us.”

Many dimensions of trust

There are limits to this approach, of course. Trust in local government is about more than the quality of digital services—although it’s not a bad place to start. David Eaves, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School who is coaching European cities through the Bloomberg initiative, likens it to a “Broken Windows theory” of service delivery. “If paying my parking ticket isn’t really simple, then why should I trust you to run a prison?” Eaves said. 

On the other hand, Eaves continued, city leaders shouldn’t assume that handling transactions smoothly inherently makes public-sector institutions trustworthy. “You could have a racist government that’s really efficient,” Eaves said. “Or a government that’s really well intentioned and inclusive but is terrible at service delivery.”

In Orlando, Broffman acknowledges that the effort to measure and build trust remains in its early stages. Data on trust are coming in for only about 30 of the city’s 300 services. Those services tend to include more transactional customer experiences, like reporting a missed trash pickup, where it’s easiest to integrate survey instruments. 

Orlando’s next frontier on customer experience aims to go beyond the digital realm to include the public’s interactions with law enforcement. As part of a broader initiative to address racial inequity, the city is sending out postcards to residents who have had interactions with police officers and asking them about their trust in the Police Department as well as their interaction with the officer. It’s similar to a resident survey the innovation team in Austin, Texas, is using to assess police interactions and improve police-community relationships.

In Orlando, the goal is to determine what builds trust and to work with the Police Department to ensure that those trust-building actions are part of their regular interactions with residents. “Having a pulse on what residents think is super important,” Broffman said of working in City Hall. “I mean, it’s why we’re here.”


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/xtock