7 Steps to Reestablish Trust in Government Operations

One of the most promising ways we’ve seen governments regain their people’s trust is by making data about everything – from street light and pothole repairs to crime rates, emergency response times, and restaurant inspection grades – more accessible to the public. Another is to make it easier for citizens to re-engage with their government: […]

Furloughed staff. Knee-jerk no votes on spending – even for much-needed repairs and maintenance. Angry letters to the editor. Low turnout at the polls. And in some areas of the world, mass protests. Trust in government remains at a troublingly low level, and the symptoms are real and painful. What can be done?

One of the most promising ways we’ve seen governments regain their people’s trust is by making data about everything – from street light and pothole repairs to crime rates, emergency response times, and restaurant inspection grades – more accessible to the public.

Another is to make it easier for citizens to re-engage with their government: to report what they see, provide data that government can analyze and act on, and help make their communities a better place by influencing government decision making. “Whether the issue is building trust anew or rebuilding it from a deficit position, people have to feel like nothing’s being hidden. And they have to know that their voices are being heard and considered,” says Robert Galford, co-author of the book The Trusted Leader.

The promise of sharing government data and using mobile and social technologies to create new channels of communication with government is enticing on both economic and social fronts. In Boston, for example, new analytics on some types of permitting led to an 83 percent increase of on- time processing in just a few months.

And that may be just the tip of an iceberg. At the 2013 G8 summit, government leaders released an “Open Data Charter,” which said in part, “Open data are an untapped resource with huge potential to encourage the building of stronger, more interconnected societies that better meet the needs of our citizens and allow innovation and prosperity to flourish.”

What’s more, not only can these sorts of activities help rebuild trust, but they can also be important differentiators. States compete. Cities and towns compete. They compete for investments and businesses, for families and students. Governments that make it easier for private industry leaders

and individuals to work with them by providing the same sorts of online and mobile services that are commonplace in the private sector will have an advantage in attracting new residents and businesses. The need is there, and the big-picture potential is clear.

The question is, how do we do this well?


Seven Thought Starters

Trust can’t be rebuilt in a day. If you’re going to pursue open-data initiatives and ask the public to help government improve, you must do it purposefully, so you won’t have regrets down the road.

You don’t need a generous budget to get good open-government initiatives under way, but you do need the ability to balance regulatory and privacy concerns with new levels of public involvement and innovation. Walking that tightrope may seem daunting, but our seven thought starters should help you achieve the right balance.

Share Information Across Departments

To get real insights into how to solve the biggest problems your community, city, or state faces, you must share information across departments, letting everyone see the issues in as much detail as possible.

Some governments are doing this through a federation approach, in which each department maintains its own data but systems are standardized so that staff can pull data as needed from other departments. Other governments are creating centralized and compressed in-memory databases to do the job.

Philadelphia Rescues Vacant Properties

Philadelphia, which has the largest municipally owned gas works in the country, combined its utility data with property assessment data and data from the Department of Licenses and Inspections (which issues rental licenses). The aggregated date helps the city government focus its efforts on troubled or vacant properties, with an eye on returning them to productive use and, ultimately, improving the neighborhoods that surround them.

“There’s very close alignment between the areas where we focus on open data and data sharing and some of the more critical issues for the city,” says Mark Headd, Philadelphia’s chief data officer. “These are also areas where some higher-level, strategic thinking needs to happen around data, so the ability to share data across organizations is proving incredibly valuable.”

Boston Creates a Heat Map to Spot Problems

In Boston, data from different departments is creating a heat map that reveals what properties around the city have the most emergency calls and police incidents, tax problems, utility issues, and so forth. With these different systems coming together, the city’s task forces can operate on fact rather than on feeling. They can make decisions more quickly, with a higher confidence level than they ever had previously.

“A year ago, that speed was impossible,” says Adam Roy, vice president of operations for Qlarion, a consultancy focused on business intelligence and data management. “Task force staff used to take a week to do this manually each time. They would have to reach out to the police department and ask, ‘Hey, can you pull the 911 calls for this area?’ They would repeat that process for several departments every two weeks. Now the process is expedited. It takes seconds now to compile, analyze, and present all of this data together.”

To get even more benefits from cross-functional data, Boston is creating a single database for all 60-plus departments. “From a functional standpoint, these departments are all connected,” says Qlarion principal Kartik Venkataramanan. “But from a data perspective, they’re not traditionally connected at all.”

Think Facilitate, Not Build

Time was, a government agency would decide how a service would be provided and would turn to the tech staff for help building solutions. That staff developed the website people used to pay their taxes or to find out where the closest bus stop was, for example.

These days, it doesn’t always pay for tech staff to build these sorts of things from scratch, however. “There are plenty of people who can build things. A more effective focus for government technologists is to become stewards of data, or application enablers,” says Headd. That way, information can flow both ways. Citizens can access what they need and the government can use the data they provide to prioritize tasks, become more efficient, or learn about an issue that needs attention.

Become Information Wholesalers

Instead of building a single application that would let someone have a transaction with government, the city of Philadelphia is building interfaces that will allow other people to supply applications that can connect and work with the government. “These days, we’re working to enable other people to be that retail provider of ‘here’s how you make a reservation for a park permit’ or ‘here’s how you get a dog license’ or ‘here’s how you find out how many 311 service requests were submitted in your area,’” says Headd. “We’re starting to think of ourselves as relationship wholesalers now.”

Encourage Competition

Tech leaders must encourage outsiders to build apps by making the right data available. “Data is the currency of innovation,” says Headd. Start by making public a data set that has no privacy implications and is of high interest to citizens, such as public transportation data.

Then let people have at it.

Host a “hack-a-thon” for developers. As well, scour the results of other hack-a-thons and check out Code for America. Ask professors at your local colleges and universities to see what they come up with in brainstorming sessions.

Why would they help you? Hackers are often in it for the challenge, as well as the personal rewards of wrestling with a problem and helping improve how the government serves the people. The same is true for professors, with the addition of being able to engage students in real-world, real-time, far-reaching problem solving.

Spur innovation by fostering a collaborative relationship between the generalists in government, such as transportation department engineers, and the technology specialists. Have the tech function provide a platform and evaluate the ideas, apps, and other solutions that arise.

Open Data and Citizen Engagement in Boston

When it comes to opening government data and engaging citizens in initiatives, Boston is often cited as a leading-edge player. Interviews with city staff, SAP experts, and industry analysts suggest several reasons why:

A forward-thinking leader

Thomas M. Menino, Boston’s mayor from 1993 until 2014, never hesitated to go beyond his comfort zone to make Boston better for citizens and for the people who work in or visit the city. A case in point was his 2006 decision to create a CIO role in his cabinet that reported directly to him. That decision speaks volumes about the mayor’s widely shared belief that today technology needs to have a seat at the strategy table.

Alignment with the city’s culture

It’s estimated that as mayor, Menino personally met close to 60 percent of the people in the city – that’s a city with 625,000 residents and another million or so people coming in every day to work. Bill Oates, Boston’s CIO, believes that Menino’s personal touch defines Boston’s culture. As Oates’ team started opening the government and increasing citizen engagement through technology, Menino’s approach was their guide.

“We want the city’s data initiatives to be true to Boston’s very personal brand,” Oates says. “For example, if an app on your mobile phone enables

us to find and fix potholes more quickly than we could in the past, that’s great. But we’re not only going to fix the pothole; we’re going to send you a picture of that fixed pothole from the guy who fixed it for you.”

“Our hope is that is we are able to build trust with people for that one particular thing they used technology to access us for, then in the future, they’re going to be more willing to be our eyes and ears on the street, to be reporting things they see, helping keep the quality of life on their street and in their neighborhood positive.”

The willingness to be held accountable for progress

Boston About Results (BAR), a performance-management dashboard, is available to anyone through the city’s website. It posts the strategic priorities of various city departments, including public health, neighborhood development, public works, school, police, fire, elderly commission, and treasury, and progress towards those goals. BAR seeks to answer three questions: What is city government doing? How well are we doing it? How can we do it better? BAR explicitly links the city’s mission to its actions.

An approach that purposefully links data to decision making

“Transparency has to be accompanied by visibility and understanding. Data can’t just be ‘out there,’” says Roy. That’s why he and his colleagues strive to ensure that the data they’re releasing is meaningful to its intended audience, whether that’s the general public, friendly hackers looking to create new solutions for the city, or the city’s senior-level decision makers.

Says Roy, “We ask: What does this audience need in order to learn what it is they want to know? What information will be helpful? What will be distracting? How should the data be presented? What form will best suit their needs?”

Present Information the Right Way for the Audience

Governments and agencies have to do more than simply offer access to raw data. Are you trying to persuade voters that spending a lot of money on a new fire station is important? Then you’ll want to put the information you’re sharing in a format that is as easy to understand as it is to access.

“What good is data if no one knows it’s there,” asks Roy, “or if the people who do see it don’t understand what they’re looking at?”

Transparency by itself isn’t enough. Articulate the broad goal, and then show the steps that your agency or department is taking to fulfill the mission. (See “How to Tailor Information to the Constituency” for some best practices.)

How to Tailor Information to the Constituency

These sites package information in a clear, concise manner, highlighting facts and figures that citizens are most likely interested in but also offering additional details for those who desire it:

Find Peers and Share Stories

Get Help from Your Peers

With the simple mission to “connect government to improve government,” govloop is a notable resource for open-data initiatives. The online network for public sector employees allows unrestricted access to journalists, vendors, consultants, academics, and students. As we write this, it has more than 60,000 members, seeking and receiving advice and collaborating to solve problems.

The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) is another notable resource. The 501(c)3 association’s mission is to foster government excellence through quality business practices, information management, and technology policy.

Also check out Data-Smart City Solutions and Open Data Now.

There’s nothing worse for human beings than feeling alone. Despite the obvious competition between geographic areas, this is such new ground for everyone in government and there is so much to be learned that many people are willing to share. If nothing else, when you talk with your peers, you’ll learn that no one has yet cracked the nut completely. “We’ve only been going down this road for a couple of years,” says Headd, “but recently,

I’ve had occasions to talk to people from other cities and in some ways, I think it’s not clear to them how they get from where they are to where they think we are. I think they perceive a large gap where there isn’t one. And that to me speaks to the need to get more stories out there about where to get started and what to prioritize, what’s easier and what’s more difficult to implement and sustain.”

There is no silver bullet. It’s an incremental process, even for those who have established reputations as leaders. As Headd acknowledges, “We can’t attend every hack-a-thon and we can’t release every data set. We just have to take things step by step, and try to find the right balance of which initiatives make the most sense, which ones are going to have the most returns on our investments.”

Ask: Who Isn’t in the Loop?

Open-data projects, social media, and other mobile app-based initiatives assume a certain level

of comfort with recent technologies. But what about constituents who aren’t as tech savvy? What about people who can’t afford a computer or smartphone? Amid clearly visible signs that the public is increasingly engaged with government through technology, it’s easy to forget that large groups of people remain out of the loop.

In her book, Social Media in the Public Sector, Ines Mergel described this phenomenon as the town hall divide. If you truly want to rebuild trust, it’s important to cast a wide net, look around, and then cast it even wider.

That isn’t easy to do. There aren’t any comprehensive solutions, not even on the horizon. “I think you can draw a direct line from the problem as it exists today right back to the inception of what we think of as online government,” says Headd. “We were saddled with this problem, and I don’t think we’ve done a very good job addressing it.”

But even small steps taken to address the problem can make a difference. Philadelphia has a set of about 80 different public computing centers designed to encourage people to engage with the city through digital channels. The city has also implemented PhillyRising, a pilot program that partners city staffers with residents of troubled areas of the city to use technology assets to address issues and engage more people in the online world.

Ask: What Can We Fix?

As exciting as it can be to offer people a new service or start a new dialogue, it’s just as important to at other processes in your government.

If there are sources of frustration for the public or for business leaders, then those constituents are less likely to welcome your open-data initiatives and new mobile app solutions or trust them to deliver on their promises over the long term. What good is it to have a handy new app for your phone that can estimate wait times at the department of motor vehicles if the actual wait to get new license plates is two and a half hours?

“All of the activity around open government, and mobile technologies and government has been like the cart leading the horse in a lot of ways,” says Joshua Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting. “There’s a very basic set of process improvements that could be initiated, particularly in state and local government, that doesn’t require 21st-century social media, new infrastructures, and technologies. And papering over broken government process with social media and mobile engagement isn’t the answer.”

Learn what it’s like to deal with your agency, city, or entity from the citizen’s point of view. Based on our research, these areas matter most to citizens:

  • The length and complexity of the permitting process to open a business
  • Processes that cross departments and the quality and timing of handoffs
  • Clarity and interdependencies of decision-making processes within and across departments
  • Jurisdictional overlaps between governments (for example, city and state)

Keep in mind that your own experience – or that of your peers in the office – isn’t enough to go by. Yours is just one data point. A teenager trying to sign up for a driving test may experience a department of motor vehicles entirely differently than a senior citizen trying to renew a license or someone who needs to see the hearing officer.

Make a review of existing processes a part of your efforts to break new ground with technology. Your efforts to engage citizens will then rest on a strengthening foundation of trust that reflects a genuine desire to improve people’s lives.

“If I were a politician,” says Greenbaum, “I would want to hitch my star to a citizen engagement movement that really talks about this dual effort of fixing process and increasing engagement, and approaching engagement from the context of process. That’s where you really are going to have an impact.”

Ask for Feedback, but Look for It, Too

New digital channels of communication will make it easier to solicit citizen feedback about your open-data initiatives and pretty much any other government activities or programs. To find out what people aren’t telling you directly, though, you can tap into another channel of open data: social media analytics.

Most organizations rely on traditional ways of soliciting feedback, such as toll-free numbers or outright requests for feedback through websites,

e-mail, or even postal mail surveys. Those are still important communications channels, particularly for people who don’t have access to the latest technologies or who prefer not to use them.

But many people bypass direct feedback avenues and just let their friends or the general public know how they feel by posting their thoughts on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, or some other venue. Gathering data from social media sites can help you spot early reactions to your efforts by tracking what citizens are expressing. Social media analytics can alert you to what’s working well and what’s not, even before your own data is in. (For more on assessing your progress, see the sidebar “The Three Elements of Trust.”)

The Three Elements of Trust

One way to determine whether you’re rebuilding trust among your constituents is to assess it from three angles, says Robert Galford, co-author of The Trusted Leader:

Strategic trust

Citizens must trust government leaders to set the right course. Check in with your team (and yourself) on a regular basis, and ask whether confidence that your goals are bound to your mission is increasing and whether you’re prioritizing appropriately. If confidence is stagnating or falling, reevaluate your goals and priorities.

Personal trust

The individuals in charge of implementation must be seen as honest and fair and willing to do the right thing. To earn this kind of trust, staff members must understand how the overall mission of the project translates to daily decisions they make. They need to keep citizens at the center of their thinking and determine whether citizens feel that they’re being heard and included.

Organizational trust

Citizens need to trust the processes that make government work. That means surveying citizens to see whether they view the various systems and processes as being more in sync over time and the government as being responsive each time citizens interact with it. Citizens must have a clear path to their goal, whether it’s as simple as getting a dog license or as complex as getting permits to build a new house.

Seizing the Opportunity

Trust that has eroded over time can’t be regained in a day. But the potential to rebuild trust by opening government data and engaging citizens is real. The opportunity to improve people’s lives by improving the way government operates is there for the taking. It’s just a matter of going after it with purpose.


The authors would like to thank SAP’s Mike Marsh and David Ditzel for their thoughtful and valuable contributions to this material.

The SAP Center for Business Insight is a program that supports the discovery and development of new research-based thinking to address the challenges of business and technology executives.



About the author:

Dante Ricci is director of Global Public Sector Marketing for SAP. Ricci has 17 years of experience in technology, holding roles in operations, fi e, solution engineering, solution management, strategy, and innovation.

Elizabeth (Liz) McGowan is director of Technology and Innovation Industry Business Solutions Public Sector at SAP. McGowan has been active in information technology for over 19 years, including 17 years with SAP, with implementation and project management responsibilities for SAP implementations in public sector, energy, and technology.

Sundu Venkataramani is senior principal of Industry Value Engineering for SAP. He has managed several enterprise business intelligence and data warehousing projects during his 12-plus–year tenure within the Professional Services Organization of SAP and SAP’s BusinessObjects.


Citizen Engagement