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Governments around the world are experiencing a trust deficit—a lack of trust between governments and their constituents, making it challenging for these institutions to deliver basic services. “Solving for Trust: Innovations in Smart Urban Governance” by Eric Gordon and Tomás Guarna is a research project funded by the Knight Foundation that builds an understanding of what the trust deficit is and how this issue can begin to be addressed to preserve democracy. Gordon and Guarna completed interviews with technologists and city leaders in Argentina, Spain, and the United States. Based on this research, the report provides seven recommendations for how city leaders, scholars, and policymakers can use different technology-based solutions to combat the trust deficit they are experiencing.
Below are key takeaways from a conversation with co-author Eric Gordon. He discusses the project’s goals, its connection to the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and how he and Guarna will take this research a step further.
Gordon and Guarna’s research is “specifically focused on how government organizations or public-serving organizations are attempting to ‘solve for trust’—how they’re attempting to create trust between constituents and themselves,” Gordon said. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated distrust, and municipalities are seeking novel technology solutions to address the problem. These technologies include algorithmic distribution of social media influencers to promote government messaging, blockchain for “trustless” decision-making, and AI-driven digital concierge services.
“At the end of the day … many of these things are short-term solutions because governments are operating in a crisis mode,” Gordon said. The long-term solution would be relationship building, more community-organizing tactics that would get people to actually trust in organizations.” In contrast, the short-term solutions, as discussed in the report, are technological tools that seek to circumvent investment in relationship building.
Successful use of social media influencers to help build trust in governments was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic with vaccine campaigns. The report cites a successful social media campaign in Guilford County, North Carolina to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates. The Youtube, Instagram, and podcast influencer “Loon” was hired by the influencer agency Xomad to create content that supports getting vaccinated. “It was effective for vaccine pickup,” Gordon said.
He added, “In the height of COVID, where getting people vaccinated was a priority of many government organizations, having the government say ‘go get vaccinated’ wasn’t working.”
The use of social media influencers is common in brand marketing, but governments’ use of social media influencers to help foster trust with the public is a newer tactic, Gordon explained. But Gordon wonders what the consequences are of using social media influencers in the long term.
He said that using social media influencers to build trust is a short-term solution, as a dependency on these sources isn’t sustainable in the long term. Gordon and Guarna found no evidence that relying on the trustworthiness of social media influencers or other proxies lends any long-term legitimacy to the government institution. This highlights an important distinction between short and long-term solutions to build trust, which governments should consider when addressing the trust deficit.
“We need to pay attention to these things. We can’t just celebrate them as wins and then keep doing them. There has to be some critical attention paid at all of these approaches toward public sector trust building because the consequences are huge.” Gordon said.
The report aims to identify the trust deficit as an issue and bring attention to it. “All institutions are losing trust. It’s not just governments. It’s hospitals, universities, and the media,” Gordon said. All of these institutions are looking for solutions to cultivate trust, and today, many are experimenting with technology-based solutions to see if it helps build trust.
“We’re looking at the way that people talk about these technologies. We don’t ask, ‘do these work or not,” he said. “It’s more of ‘how are people talking about these technologies as tools for addressing the problem that they see.’”
Gordon isn’t necessarily advocating for technology-based solutions but instead encourages public sector decision-makers to take a critical look at how they impact institutional trust.
“We’re advocating for people to pay attention to how tech-enabled governance solutions impact trust,’” Gordon said.
“This [research] is all about how institutions function and the role of trust in enabling them to function. The work that we do in the ELab is focused on co-design and co-creation, which is all about how people come to trust the stories that get told about them, the interventions that get created in their name—that’s the whole purpose of co-design,” Gordon said. “Everything we do in the ELab is about trust.”
Ultimately, the Engagement Lab hopes to impact institutional decision-making to create meaningful progress for marginalized communities, such as the efforts taking place within the Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence Initiative and the future Climate and Community Initiative.
“The Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence Initiative brings people into the process of storytelling through multiple mechanisms in order to highlight the lived experiences of individuals related to this issue. Then we invite the public sector into that process as listeners. This supports trust-building in the long term,” Gordon said.
Both the Engagement Lab and the “Solving for Trust” research aim to solve the same problem of building institutional trust in different ways, Gordon explained.
On December 5, Gordon and Guarna will share their research in a webinar. A number of panelists, representing governments and companies discussed in the report, will also speak about the next steps for using technologies in the pursuit of creating functional and equitable governments. RSVP here.
Both Gordon and Guarna are planning to extend this research in a book-length manuscript. The book will further explore the trust deficit and look beyond governments to see how other institutions are tackling the same issue.