Maybe governments need to show trust to gain trust

Yesterday I wrote a blog post on a question I’ve been asking for a few years.

Maybe governments need to show trust to gain trust
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Yesterday I wrote a blog post on a question I’ve been asking for a few years.

If we’re going to ask how to get people to trust government, we should also be asking how we can get government to trust people.

Because trust goes both ways. We can’t treat everyone like a fraudster and then be surprised when people get frustrated.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on trust or government policy. I probably haven’t done enough academic research on this to have an opinion. There are others out there like Pia Andrews who have much more experience and knowledge in this area.

But as a user researcher and service design, I do know about bit about people’s perceptions and experiences with government, and I have some ideas on what could help us show trust.

Six ways government could make people feel more trusted

  1. We need to be willing to rethink what is necessary and what is not

We need to be willing to concede some things.

Do we really need BC residents to show their passport to get a health number? Do we really need government employees to prove their disability to get a computer or software licence or desk that works for them? Do we really need everyone to file a tax return, when, for most people, we already have all the info we need on their income? Maybe the answer is still yes, but we need to be willing to really examine these things honestly and change how we do things if we can.

What are the risks of trusting people and lowering the barriers to entry? Do they outweigh the risks of losing trust and respect that people have in us?

We need to figure out what the bare minimum is, and only ask for that. Because when we ask for too much, it sends the message that we don’t believe people, and that we care more about oversight than people’s lives.

2. Empathy and equity mindsets are not optional in the public service

We need to change how we talk and even think about the people we serve. I’ve been on too many teams where people pretended they had empathy for the users, but didn’t really. This is especially true in sectors like justice and benefits.

We’ve been ingrained with mental models that tell us that benefits claimants are lazy and people who commit crimes are scum and people in certain areas are rednecks. We have to work every single day to change this, in ourselves and others. We must call out these things. We must actively model better behaviour. Anyone who doesn’t do this should not be in the public service.

And anyway, so what? What if they are lazy or scum or a redneck?Government is here to serve everyone, not just the people whom those of us with privilege deem “worthy”

3. If a government service is for everyone, there should be no hurdles

We are obligated to make public services available to the public.

But we don’t.

We make public services available to those members of the public who can pass our “tests.”

In Canada we have Universal Healthcare. But you need a health number to access it. To get a health number, you need to prove a bunch of things: your identity, where you live, where you have lived, how much time you’ve been in the country/province. We also have a child benefit. But you need to file taxes to receive it, and many are too intimidated by an 8-page legalese form which, if completed incorrectly, can lead to a criminal charge.

It’s not universal if it’s only for people who do the right things.

Opening things up and trusting people will cost money. Closing down and not trusting people costs trust and respect, and in the case of healthcare and social services, that will cost lives. What’s more important to us?

I’m not saying we should have no requirements for these services. But we need make it so easy — automatic, even — to meet these requirements if we’re to ensure that people aren’t being left behind.

4. Speak the language of people, not businesses and orgs

Government employees speak a complex langauge that consists mostly of business language passed down from Big Four, with a lot of acronyms, jargon and legalese scattered in.

Then we say we’re being open with people by making things public, knowing full well that the majority of people can’t actually understand what we put out there.

Our complex language creates a sort of club or clique that only certain people can be part of. Would you feel trust towards a club that didn’t let you in?

Good governments do the hard work to translate their public-facing government language into a common language that anyone can understand. But the best governments make the common language the language inside their organization too. Anyone can be part of the work, anyone can understand what’s going on.

If we change our language, we let people in. If we let people in, we are showing them we trust them.

5. Give the people who use the services the power to make decisions about the service

There’s a word for this: Co-design.

In government, Co-design should be a requirement, not a buzzword, for high profile public-facing services and policy.

Designing with users is one of the digital principles in the BC government, but no one enforces it or checks in on it, so it’s optional. This isn’t good enough, in my opinion.

Co-design alone isn’t enough: We have to be willing to concede power, to put the decisions in the hands of users. Otherwise it’s just performative.

Pia Andrews said at FWD50, “people won’t truly trust us until they feel they have power and a seat at the table.” And she’s absolutely right.

Putting power in the hands of people means trusting them, and this needs to be the norm, not the exception.

6. Find the people who’ve been let down by government and hire them.

This is so important, and yet it’s probably the thing we are least likely to do.

If we really, truly want to figure out how to get people to trust government, we need to hire people who don’t trust government, or who have been most let down by government, to work on our policy and service design teams.

Their lived experience will force us to question our assumptions and reframe our work. Their presence in the room will change the decisions that are made.

But this only works if we are willing and able to shift our structures, processes and power. This only works if we are able change our hiring rules and open our teams up to not just those with business and digital skills but those with life skills.

Most importantly, this only works if we can provide them with a safe workplace where they feel valued and included.


Trust goes both ways — if governments want people to trust us, we need to be willing to trust people, too.

Six ideas for getting people to feel government trusts them:

  1. Only ask for what’s totally necessary (forms, evidence etc)
  2. Everyone in government must have an empathy and equity mindset
  3. Reduce barriers to entry for services
  4. Change our internal language to match the language that people use
  5. Distribute power to people through codesign
  6. Hire the people who don’t trust or have been let down by government

Did I miss anything?

As I’ve said, I’m no expert on this and haven’t done much academic research on this topic. I would love to hear other thoughts and read research on this subject. If you have any ideas or resources, please get in touch!