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Commentary Article May 10th, 2022
Cities • Delivery • Legitimacy • Justice

How can local governments earn community trust?

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@Kennedy_School Public Policy graduates Leslie Grueber & Emily Mello share 4 reflections for local governments to consider as they build trust with the communities they serve

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From belonging in @fortcollinsgov & community initiatives in @HoustonTX, to climate equity in @PortlandGov & partnerships in @RaleighGov; explore how cities across the US sought collaborative community input

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“The onus is always on the government to explain ‘why’ if we can’t do something...We’re now trying to make sure that piece is happening—wrapping up and saying ‘here’s what we heard’.” @PortlandGov

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The United States is facing a crisis of trust. Public trust in government in the US has been in decline for decades, and today only 24% of Americans say they can trust the government to do what is right.

This distrust—particularly among communities that have been systemically marginalized, excluded, and harmed by government—is valid. At the same time, it hampers the ability of government to enact policy and provide services that best improve the quality of life for the communities they serve. Half of Americans agree that low trust in government makes it harder to solve our nation’s problems.

While the public conversation around trust in government often focuses on the national level, local governments are an equally important part of the equation. They are responsible for providing the everyday services that people depend on and generally interact more directly with their constituents. As such, they provide a key opportunity to repair government-community relationships.

Half of Americans agree that low trust in government makes it harder to solve our nation’s problems.

We have both had professional experiences that allowed us to see the critical role local governments play in building trust firsthand: Leslie completed a fellowship in the Chicago Mayor’s Office, where she supported the development of the community engagement framework for Chicago’s first citywide planning process in over 50 years. Emily worked with the Rockefeller Foundation supporting the domestic Covid-19 response and saw what a massive difference trust makes in local governments’ ability to successfully deploy vaccination efforts.  

We embarked on this research in order to understand the how: How can local governments successfully earn community trust? We focused on initiatives that centered communities of color, low-income communities, and other marginalized groups to learn more about what practices may strengthen local government relationships with historically underserved residents.

We centered our research around four case studies: projects taken on by cities across the US in which the governments involved residents via participatory or community engagement processes. While these programs varied in their policy area or goal and did not all explicitly list trust building as an intention, they all sought collaborative community input and prioritized the inclusion of diverse voices:

  • The Art of Belonging Forum in Fort Collins, Colorado

  • The Complete Communities initiative in Houston, Texas

  • The Equity Working Group to inform a Climate Action Plan in Portland, Oregon

  • The Master Planning Process for Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh, North Carolina

Building on our interviews, independent research, and calls that have been made by activists, communities of color, and low-income communities for years, we have distilled our findings into four reflections for local governments to consider as they work to build trust with the communities they serve:

Building trust will require significant time and a holistic perspective

Many factors that are outside of local government’s control impact people’s perception of it. History, current public concerns, the actions of state and national government, and the strength of relationships city residents have with one another all feed into people’s relationship with their local government. This means that no single initiative or event will be sufficient to build government-community trust.

As we saw in Raleigh, while community members involved in the development of the Dix Park Master Plan lauded the government’s collaborative planning approach and intentionality around equity, this positive experience didn’t inherently translate into greater trust in the government. In conversations with all four cities we highlight here, interviewees noted the legacy of harm to marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, needs to be addressed. This healing will require explicit recognition of past wrongs and long-term dedication to repair.

Look internally before engaging externally: governments need to prioritize institutionalizing a culture centered on equity

In order to effectively collaborate with communities, governments need to institutionalize a consistent commitment to equity within their own organization. This requires three core actions:

  • Ensuring government staff reflect the diversity of the constituents they serve. To effectively serve marginalized communities, it is important for members of those communities to be well represented within government. An emphasis on staff diversity also helps prevent the burden of advocating for an equity focus from falling on the same, small group of staff—often staff of color—time and again.

  • Addressing intra-governmental silos. Before embarking on a new community effort, it is important for governments to understand relevant initiatives taking place across departments, and to gauge how and if communities have engaged with local government in the past. Interviewees provided multiple examples of how improved communication across departments and programs would have enhanced their efforts.

  • Building commitment to the same values up-and-down the organizational ladder and across departments. It's important for all government staff, from leadership down, to share a commitment to applying an equity lens to their work and a joint vision of what advancing equity looks like in practice.

Through trial and error, Fort Collins has recognized the critical importance of creating an internal culture around equity. The high frequency of outreach to the same communities was tiring the very residents the city aimed to benefit the most. As one Fort Collins interviewee noted:

“When you’re a community member, you just see ‘local government’ – you don’t see the layers, and might blend projects together, or think distinct efforts are the same.”

The city is also working to diversify its staff.

Accountability measures and feedback loops are critical to sustaining relationships with communities and building trust

The implementation and communication phases of community engagement initiatives are key to long-term success. Interviewees across cities described a similar pattern of governments pouring significant energy into developing program ideas in partnership with residents, but not necessarily communicating the results of those efforts and the rationale behind decisions back to community partners. Transparently communicating both successes and setbacks can help government to maintain the community relationships it has built, as well as help communities to understand the impact of their work.

In Portland, efforts are underway in the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to close feedback loops with community partners. The city learned from the 2015 Climate Action Plan process about the importance of keeping communication channels open with community partners, even once a project formally closes. As Harmonee Dashiell of the City of Portland noted:

“The onus is always on us [the government] to explain the ‘why’ if we can’t do something...We’re now trying to make sure that piece is happening—wrapping up and saying ‘here’s what we heard’—and we’re also trying to have regular checkbacks with community partners.”

Partnerships with third-party institutions can buoy collaborative governance efforts

It's no coincidence that all four governments in our case study cities partnered with philanthropy or local universities to carry out their initiatives. Through partnership, resource-constrained local governments can gain access to additional personnel and financial resources, expanding their capacity for deep community engagement. Outside partners can also help to balance uneven power dynamics, serving as more neutral intermediaries who can work directly with communities, without carrying the government’s potential historical baggage.

In Houston, Mayor Turner’s office has partnered with the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) to execute the Complete Communities initiative. CDRC, an urban design and community development nonprofit, helped Houston to expand the footprint of its work.

To learn more, you can read our full report here.

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Collaborative Governance and Community Trust

This report explores how local governments in the U.S. can repair community relationships and build trust. It investigates city programs that have employed participatory or co-governance models, then evaluates them.

Read the full report

Written by:

Leslie Grueber Public Policy Graduate, Harvard Kennedy School
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Emily Mello Public Policy Graduate, Harvard Kennedy School
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