We Need New Models to Rebuild Trust in Institutions

note cards pinned to cork board with “community” written on it
Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

By Sonal Shah + Hollie Russon Gilman

To achieve greater equity, we first need to build trust between people and institutions, both public and private. Trust is low. While growing inequity (not just inequality) contributes to the lack of trust, shifting that requires new mechanisms to communicate, collaborate and make structural change. Building and maintaining trust must be intentional, we can not go back to business as usual. It will not be easy. This will require power shifts. Each group will need to give up some power to achieve impact. Over the next few weeks, we will write about various steps needed to build trust. This note is focused on how engagement needs to change from public relations to creating effective collaboration and feedback loops.

There are models of participation and collaboration in governance that have been tested locally and globally. We can learn from what has worked through some illustrative examples. The recent calls to Defund the Police, for example, have sparked new civic energy and a willingness for experimentation inside and outside of government. But defunding is only half the equation: Building out an affirmative alternative is just as urgent. Communities across the country have shown that having greater public empowerment in budget decisions, through for example participatory budgeting — especially for Black and Brown communities — leads to different outcomes. But, this requires decision makers being willing to give up some of their power to communities in a genuine manner that builds trust.

Creating opportunities for people and communities to engage is a first step towards building public trust, especially in shaping the experience for disenfranchised/overlooked communities to participate. Public leaders should anticipate that their calls for engagement will be viewed with suspicion. However, community champions can create bridges. Too many people see civic engagement as an exclusive club. Moving beyond the usual suspects requires reaching beyond our bubbles and building new partnerships, especially those that are racially equitable. There is much to learn from different communities like the disability rights community about how they built partnerships to achieve outcomes and build language and spaces that are more inclusive.

There is a unique opportunity for institutions to build upon and support community driven engagement efforts in six key ways:

Genuinely empower disenfranchised communities.

Community members who are disenfranchised community members are experts on issues that pertain to them. They are proximate to their challenges and many times have localized solutions. Let’s trust them and genuinely empower disenfranchised communities. Initiatives like Participatory Budgeting, which are being adopted across the country in counties and cities can be replicated. Participatory budgeting allows residents as young as 11-years-old to allocate public resources and vote on projects in their communities.

Create a culture and expectation of data transparency.

Have a real conversation about creating a more transparent government, starting with how the term is defined. Are residents being able to access data, or is government sharing data across departments? Are communities publishing their own data? Is real-time data just being pushed out or is it made easier for residents to use? Let’s create a culture and expectation of data access and also privacy.

Engage external expertise to add public sector civic technology capacity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that innovators want to help the public sector. COVID-19 also exposed gaps in digital access, highlighting the importance of the renewed energy towards civic, digital innovation. The federal government could create a technology fellowship to work with cities/counties/states. Technology fellows can help local communities access talent and can help local institutions strengthen their technology infrastructure with input from diverse stakeholders. Let’s engage external experts to add public sector civic technology capacity.

Use a community-focused framework to create feedback loops.

Community members should actively shape and design engagement- both the feedback mechanisms and the process of engagement. This includes who does and does not participate as well as how they engage. For example, in Jackson, Michigan, The People’s Assembly brings 20% of residents together “to share their opinion about what they would like to see happen in the city.” This model gives Black residents the opportunity to build economic and political power, and ensures equity is front and center. Let’s use community-focused frameworks to create feedback loops.

Make digital equity a priority.

Digital equity should be a priority as the future will be a hybrid, combining in-person and online experiences. Effective digital tools, especially those used in decision-making and governance, should be accessible to and inclusive of all communities. Income and education are strongly correlated with broadband use at home, so the best and most effective tools should be multi-modal, with the outcome that all people, with varying levels of access, literacy, and training, should be able to participate.

Engage multi-sector partnerships and anchor institutions.

Government alone can not solve all problems. Responsible government partnerships with universities, philanthropies, industry, and civil society will be even more critical. This will require building new models of partnerships based on shared outcomes. For instance, universities can lead efforts on ethical stewardship and can help address pressing concerns, including a pipeline for talent, capacity building, technical assistance, data collection and analytics, or research.

To build trust between institutions and people, we need new models, new approaches and a commitment to change. It will be important to engage multiple sectors and designate responsible anchor institutions to bring together stakeholders. Done well, it can be transformational, but it requires intention, consistency and a willingness to learn and adapt.

Developing new solutions to old problems.