Reimagining how governments can build trust

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  • Published Date: 12 April 2022

The temporary rise in trust in governments in Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a reminder both of trust’s importance as an enabler for governments, and its gradual erosion over previous decades.

The first webinar in the ANZSOG/Centre for Public Impact Reimagining Government series for 2022 asked the question ‘What will it take to rebuild trust in government?’ of a panel of Naja Nelson, a CPI North America Associate and Marcus Stewart, Co-Chair, First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.

The discussion covered how trust could be won or lost, and what different forms of trust could be effective in different circumstances.

Facilitator Simon Kent, ANZSOG Deputy CEO, Thought Leadership, asked the panel whether trust was essential for the work of government, or if good outcomes could be achieved in low-trust environments.

Mr Stewart said that in his work with Aboriginal communities and the Victorian Government on a treaty, building trust was not the primary aim.

“We’re not setting out to build trust – we’ve had 200 years of broken promises, we’re setting out for a relationship of equals to change the lives of our people, if trust is built this way that’s fantastic but we are saying to our community we don’t need to trust them to work with them.”

“Trust is a journey, there’ll be times when you gain it and times when you lose it. It’s about how do we fundamentally change the lives of our people and what role do governments play in that.

He said that the Victorian Aboriginal community did not accept the power structures of the state.

“We’re not in a co-design process we’re in a process of self-determination,” he said.

“We’re not agreeing, we’re arguing but we are continually showing up and representing our interests through these negotiations. Even through the lockdowns, we were having those conversations with our community members, about what does life look life in two decades time?”

Ms Nelson said that governments needed to recognise that building trust took time and shouldn’t be the main focus on their activity.

“As far as trust goes – it’s way easier to acknowledge the capacity to have confidence and rely on someone,” she said.

“Sometimes when people think about trust, they think give them 100 per cent - with no kind of accountability, but that is not the case for other relationships.”

“There’s a lot of research that agrees that where there is stronger trust, there is a stronger working relationship. To build that trust people should think about what are the things I need to do to show I am trustworthy? How do I show up for my residents to build trust?”

Ms Nelson worked with the City of Detroit on a program to regain resident trust after the city declared bankruptcy in 2013.

“The Detroit city government has been on a deep journey to foster legitimacy with all their residents, including a particular focus on residents with disability, including the creation of an office of disability affairs. They realised that they were missing the mark and had to show up more for their residents,” she said.

Parts of this process included government officials actively partnering with community leaders, disability groups and community organisers, and using hour-long interviews with residents – where officials were told to listen not lead discussion – to pick up common themes and complaints.

They also tried to expand investment in disability support, from beyond the city’s disability agency to other parts of government.

“No one has been able to design some kind of ‘five step plan’ to trust, because relationships are messy. It can take a long time, with communities who have had years of bad experiences with their local government where they feel unheard and undervalued,” Ms Nelson said.

She said that one of the lessons from the Detroit project was that public services could earn trust by exposing their vulnerability and being more transparent about what they could and could not do.

Mr Stewart said that in Australia election cycles destroyed trust between governments and Aboriginal communities because ‘politicians often use Aboriginal affairs as a political football, and then after the election expect to come in and work with us and wonder why we don’t trust them.

However, he praised the boldness of the Victorian public service and leadership of the Victorian government for ‘stepping into the responsibility of the moment’ and creating the Yoo-rrook truth-telling commission, with significant Aboriginal involvement in the mandate and the terms of reference.

ANZSOG and ANU Crawford School Professor Ariadne Vromen summarised the debate, by reminding the audience that trust is not a static outcome, but a process and journey that changes over time. She said that Australia was a ‘low-to middle’ trust nation and the OECD countries with the highest levels of trust in government were Switzerland and Scandinavian countries, all of which had high levels of equality.

She said that the attitude that ‘politics gets in the way’ was an abrogation of the responsibility to recognise that citizens saw government and politics as the same thing, and that the public sector needed to work with an understanding that government was inherently political.


More resources from the webinar are available on the CPI Reimagining Government microsite. The microsite also includes information about the other three webinars in 2022, as well as information on our Reimagining Government Community of Practice – which includes networking events and workshops.

The ANZSOG/CPI Reimagining Government series began in 2020 as a response to the pandemic and 2022 sees the third series of webinars exploring how government can be reimagined to be more creative, more collaborative and better equipped to deal with the big challenges of the 21st century.

The 2022 series will again allow participants to listen to and learn from leading thinkers with academic and practitioner backgrounds. Each webinar will be highly interactive and will provide participants with ample opportunity to contribute their views via moderated discussion, case studies, and breakout rooms.

The second webinar in the series, How do stories enable social change?, will be held on 23 June with the following speakers. Registrations are now open.

  • Teya Dusseldorp (Executive Director, Dusseldorp Forum)
  • Simon Goff (Partner & Global Managing Director, Purpose)
  • Skye Trudgett (CEO, Kowa)