Articles

Can Trust in City Government Be Measured?

Researchers believe three key elements contribute to trustworthiness in public service.

by Chris Bousquet, Data-Smart City Solutions / October 19, 2017
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This article was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions

“Trust in government is at an all time low.” Does this line sound familiar? Throughout American political history, it has appeared in the headlines of countless articles, today many citing the Pew Research Center’s Public Trust in Government scale or the Edelman Trust Barometer. And yet, while these macro-level studies of citizen trust in government have been a mainstay of American media, few have paid attention to trust at the local, organizational level. Perhaps no one trusts the federal government, but what about your city’s Department of Public Works (DPW)?  

In their paper “Validating a scale for citizen trust in government organizations” for the International Institute of Administrative Sciences, Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen and Eva Knies of the Utrecht University School of Governance in the Netherlands sought to outline and test a method for local government organizations to determine how much citizens trust them.

Based on a scan of scholarly literature in organizational trust, the authors narrowed their concept of trust to three key elements. The first element, perceived competence, examines the extent to which citizens perceive organizations as “capable, effective, skillful, and professional.” The second, perceived benevolence, depends on whether citizens see government as caring about the welfare of the public. And finally, perceived integrity is the degree to which citizens think that organizations tell the truth and fulfill their promises.  

Grimmelikhuijsen and Knies then adapted an existing model for organizational trust in private institutions to a public context. They devised and distributed to 991 residents a survey of 12 questions that attempt to get at perceived competence, benevolence, and integrity. As a sample, the authors focused on perceived trust of local government in the Netherlands to manage air pollution.

After developing their survey, the authors tested and ultimately validated that their survey measured the same quality of trust across various groups of respondents. Two tests—one that compared student responses to other residents and one that compared high and low education groups—revealed similar measurement structures, meaning the model tested trust consistently when applied to different samples. However, based on these tests the authors narrowed their survey down to nine questions (see appendix for model).

In the final part of the study, the authors compared their model to an often-used measure of trust: a one-item trust measure that asks to what degree residents agree with the statement “I have trust in XXX, when it concerns XXX.” The authors found significant correlations for all three factors, indicating that their measurement is indeed a useful gauge of trust.

At a time when trust in federal government seems to be fraying, it is important that local governments make efforts to retain the trust of their residents. Using the model presented in this paper, cities can gain a better understanding of the state of resident trust and work to improve it. 

Appendix: 


McKnight et al. 2002 items

Our items

In final scale

NO PREFIX

ADDED PREFIX: When it concerns [air quality policy]… 

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Overall, LegalAdvice.com is a capable and proficient Internet legal advice provider.

COMP1: [The municipality of XX] is capable.*

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LegalAdvice.com is competent and effective in providing legal advice.

COMP2: [The municipality of XX] is effective.

 

 

COMP3: [The municipality of XX] is skilful.

 

In general, LegalAdvice.com is very knowledgeable about the law.

COMP4: [The municipality of XX] is expert.*

*

LegalAdvice.com performs its role of giving legal advice very well.

COMP5: [The municipality of XX] carries out its duty very well.*

*

If required help, LegalAdvice.com would do its best to help me.

BEN1: If citizens need help, [the municipality of XX] will do its best to help them.*

*

I believe that LegalAdvice.com would act in my best interest.

BEN2: [The municipality of XX] acts in the interest of citizens.*

*

LegalAdvice.com is interested in my well-being, not just its own.

BEN3: [The municipality of XX] is genuinely interested in the well-being of citizens.*

*

LegalAdvice.com is truthful in its dealings with me.

INT1: [The municipality of XX] approaches citizens in a sincere way.*

*

LegalAdvice.com is sincere and genuine.

INT2: [The municipality of XX] is sincere.*

*

LegalAdvice.com would keep its commitments.

INT3: [The municipality of XX] keeps its commitments.

 

I would characterize LegalAdvice.com as honest.

INT4: [The municipality of XX] is honest.*

*