Paper Spotlight: Fostering Citizen Trust in Municipal Government

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A new IMFG Perspectives paper posit five steps to foster citizen trust in Canadian municipalities.

By Drew Bush

In a new article, Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson and her co-author, Dina Graser, posit five steps to foster citizen trust in Canadian municipalities as they attempt to raise funds to cope with almost $400 billion of infrastructure deficit nationwide.

Pamela Robinson is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Pamela Robinson is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Published by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, A Recipe for Fiscal Trust (No. 13) reviews literature on public trust in government. In September, the authors will host a seminar to elaborate on their work. (Check back here for details when they become available.)

“There’s no shortcuts,” Robinson, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said of the paper. “We have to stop thinking about civic engagement and relationship building between local government and members of the general public as discreet events and things that you tick-off, ‘Like, ok, I’ve done that.’ There are—the ways in which relationships are built and maintained and nurtured and cultivated is the active work of government.”

She sees this research as building upon previous Geothink research examining the ways in which civic hackathons reshape citizen-government interactions along with open data. Instead of interrogating how open data makes municipalities more accountable or transparent (or may fail to), this paper examines how it shapes levels of public trust in government. Robinson adds that data itself is not a panacea.

“Data is an input into our process but the data itself won’t give you trust or transparency,” she said. “You have to use the data embedded in broader processes of civic engagement. And so the portal is just the beginning—it’s not the end.”

Robinson warns that the longer municipalities wait to build trust and raise funds, the greater the challenge will be in terms of the huge backlog of municipal infrastructure work that needs to be completed. Particular challenges include governments strapped for resources and money, news cycles with shorter attention spans, and citizen fatigue with governmental processes. Yet, new transit lines or bridges require sustained community engagement.

“Not only is the process of maintaining good citizen-local government relationships really important and hard work,” Robinson said. “It’s going to require more and more attention. And it can’t be just that thing that those people over there do. It needs to be internalized.”

Find the executive summary and citation for the article below:

Graser, D. & Pamela, R. (2016) A Recipe for Fiscal Trust. IMFG Perspectives, No. 13, p. 1-20.

Executive Summary
Cities across Canada face an enormous infrastructure deficit. From 100-year-old water mains to transit systems in vital need of upgrading and expansion, Canadian infrastructure is widely recognized to be in dire straits. And while the majority of Canadians elected a new government that was prepared to run a deficit to fund infrastructure, these funds alone will not cover the investments needed.

Local governments need to make significant financial investments, too, and must raise revenues through taxes, user fees, and possibly new revenue tools. But before they can take these actions, they have to build trust to convince heir residents that new revenues are needed and will be spent wisely.

What does it mean to build trust? This paper examines the notion of trust and how governments can build it using:

  • Good information: relevant data made accessible to citizens and attractively packaged to enhance transparency;
  • Good communications: good stories that are well told, with relevant information distributed through a variety of channels (using open government tools and techniques);
  • Good engagement: inclusive and meaningful opportunities for dialogue about policy decisions to build the continuum of trust (using a variety of mechanisms);
  • Credibility: building an effective track record and controlling costs (through better performance benchmarking and other approaches);
  • Earmarking of funds: creating a dedicated fund that clearly links revenues raised to specific expenditures, and regularly reporting on the progress of projects funded.

This research shows that there are concrete and practical steps that cities can take to build fiscal trust – but there are no shortcuts. Trust-building is a long-term proposition that takes resources. Cities must invest the time and dedicate the resources to build trust through all of the steps outlined, and continue to do so as part of their regular activities.