Education & Government
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Diana Baker Freeman
Sr. Manager, Modern Governance Advocacy & Iniatives

Practical ways for municipalities to build public trust

December 18, 2023
0 min read
Practical ways for municipalities to build public trust

Trust is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. When citizens believe their local government is working in their best interests, they are more engaged, supportive and cooperative. To build and foster trust, municipalities must prioritize transparency, accountability and responsiveness.

Here, we explore some practical ways that local government organizations can foster public trust and encourage support and participation among residents.

When public trust gets broken

Consider this tale. Ground was broken for a new library and community center with much fanfare and media coverage. The city manager and council had worked hard to convince residents to approve a bond issue that would allow them to build this much-needed community resource.

Soon after the site was prepared and the foundation was under construction, the site engineer reported some bad news: Analysis showed that chemicals used by the previous landowner had leached into the soil, potentially making it an unsafe site.

Construction was halted until a solution could be found. The council and the manager did not publicize this news, and they didn’t answer questions from the media. As a result, residents didn’t know the situation when they passed by the construction site. Week after week, all they saw were the weeds sprouting from the upturned earth and the bricks of the skeletal foundation.

“Just another example of taxpayer money wasted,” they said.

Trust in the federal government is at an all-time low, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey: “Currently, fewer than two-in-ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ (1%) or ‘most of the time’ (15%). This is among the lowest trust measures in nearly seven decades of polling.”

That sentiment, unfortunately, extends to state and local government, as well. Distrust in government at all levels leads to apathy, low voter turnout, little or no support for tax increases and new initiatives, and resistance to or noncompliance of regulations and laws. Ultimately, the result is the erosion of democracy.

Trust challenges

In the case of the delayed construction of the new library, the city council had legitimate reasons for keeping the chemical contamination of their site under wraps. They didn’t want to alert the previous landowner that they might be bringing a lawsuit against them. They also worried that real estate owners might raise the prices on their land if they knew the city government was looking for another parcel.

But in keeping this information to themselves, the city government lost the public trust and support it had worked so hard to gain with the bond issue vote. City councils and county commissioners have complex and difficult jobs that require time and expertise. Legal requirements and state and federal mandates can obscure the importance of the public’s role beyond the public comment time at meetings.

Building trust between local government and constituents is essential to a healthy democracy, even when facing the headwinds of discontent with the federal government. Public trust makes the job of local government representatives easier because they know they can count on support when tough decisions must be made.

Building trust: The essentials

In the library construction example, the city council members felt bound by legal obligations not to talk about why the project stalled. Unfortunately, lack of reliable information creates an environment ripe for rumors and misinformation. But if the council trusted their citizens, members could have worked with their attorney to come up with a message that explained the delay without giving away too many details. If the citizens trusted the city council, they would have appreciated the explanation and understood why details were withheld.

Trust, writes Aline Muylaert, commercial director and co-founder of CitizenLab, is “a two-way street that requires governments to have faith in their communities just as much as communities need to have faith in their leaders.”

Creating a culture of trust on governing boards and local governments requires transparency, communication, engagement, accountability, and responsiveness.


Openly sharing information about policies, decisions, and budgets is crucial. Creating accessible online platforms and regularly updating the public on projects, expenditures, and decision-making processes helps citizens understand how their government operates. This knowledge builds trust. Livestreaming meetings makes the governing process more open and accessible to everyone. As does posting the minutes of the meetings.


Regular, clear and honest communication keeps residents informed about ongoing projects, policy changes, and challenges faced by local governments. Build trusted communication channels, such as your public transparency website, newsletters, email, social media, and public announcements. Don’t use these channels for good news only. Trust that your constituents can handle and understand difficult news, too.


Communication is not just what you tell the public; it is also what the public tells you. Actively involve your community in decision-making processes through meeting participation, surveys, and community forums. Make sure to include the voices of all citizens, not just those with the time and wherewithal to speak at public meetings.

When you make decisions — particularly in cases when it seems as though you are going against the majority — explain the elements that go into decisions to help people understand. They may still disagree, but knowing that you based your decisions on sound data and an understanding of complex circumstances will build trust.

Streaming your public meetings can also help engage your community, increase citizen involvement and enhance community relations.


The public wants their elected leaders to be accountable for their governance decisions. Willingness to admit a misstep or mistake helps build trust. A culture of accountability means establishing governance practices aligned to ethical standards and completing regular audits on those standards. Make the results of the audits available to the public and outline steps to remedy any resulting issues.


When you invite citizens to give their feedback, you should demonstrate that you heard them and will work to address their concerns. Don’t allow their comments to fall into a black hole. Treat inquiries, complaints, and suggestions with consideration and respect. While you may not be able to respond to individuals at meetings, you can address their concerns through emails and other messaging.

Trust is an invaluable asset

Trust in local government fosters social cohesion by creating a sense of shared responsibility and common purpose. Public trust is an invaluable asset. It creates a positive environment for governance, encourages civic participation, and contributes to the overall well-being and development of the community. It is a foundational element for effective and sustainable local governance.

Diligent Community can be an effective way for local governments to promote transparency and community engagement, especially with the Public Transparency Website. By livestreaming and recording meetings, providing powerful search capabilities, accepting public requests to speak online, and sending automatic notifications, board members can build trust with their constituents and ensure that all voices are heard.


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