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Restoring Trust in the U.S. Federal Government

Today's post comes to us from Neil Reichenberg, Former Executive Director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA”HR). Neil is currently teaching a course on human resource management in the public sector at George Mason University.

The January 2021 Gallup monthly survey of the top challenges facing the United States found that government and poor leadership had replaced COVID-19 as the top issue of concern. While the post-election period culminating in the January 6th insurrection likely influenced the results, this was actually a return to the top slot as “government and poor leadership” had held this position of top concern pre-pandemic from 2017-2019. Similarly, the Pew Research Center found that only 20% of U.S. adults say they trust the federal government to do the right thing “just about always or most of the time”.

Historically, Americans have placed greater trust in their local and state governments as compared to the federal government. I recall testifying several years ago before a Congressional committee and on the panel in which I participated was a mayor who said something along the lines of, “potholes don't have a party affiliation”, his point being that his constituents primarily cared if the potholes were repaired and that local officials recognize that they provide basic services on which their citizens depend, making the partisan gridlock, which often afflicts the U.S. Congress, impossible if they want to remain in power.

As we have seen during this pandemic as well as in other disasters, government can and should play a crucial role in assisting its citizens. While government may not always meet our expectations, we tend to turn to the government at times of crisis.

So, how can the United States restore the trust that its citizens need in the federal government?

On January 27, 2021, President Biden issued a memorandum on restoring trust in government through scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking. The memorandum commits the administration to basing decisions on science and data. To avoid violating the public trust, political considerations, according to the memorandum, will not influence scientific research.

One group working on restoring trust in government is the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that strives for a more effective government for the American people. This organization has developed a public service leadership model that has two core values - stewardship of public trust and commitment to public good. For stewardship of public trust, the model states, “Federal leaders represent the American people and must be held to the highest standard. They are stewards of the Constitution, taxpayer dollars and the workforces they lead.” To demonstrate commitment to the public good, federal leaders need a “deep-rooted service orientation and commitment to the public good.” The model includes four leadership competencies consisting of: becoming self-aware, engaging others, leading change, and achieving results.

The Partnership for Public Service's Government Leadership Advisory Council issued a letter in January 2021 stating that “strong and ethical leadership from elected officials, political appointees, and career executives is necessary to rebuild and revitalize the government and reestablish that trust.” The letter includes recommendations for political appointees, the career workforce, and the Congress and urges that “members of the new administration, members of Congress and the career workforce adhere to their constitutional oath of office, and fully commit to being strong stewards of public trust so they can successfully tackle the many pressing problems facing the nation.”

The United States is a deeply divided country facing numerous challenges in which government needs to undertake a leading role. While there is not one solution, it is important for leaders from all sectors to take steps to help bridge partisan divisions and reunite the country. Fortune collaborated with Deloitte on a survey of 100 CEOs in January 2021 asking them to name their top priorities for the Biden Administration. The top priority, which was cited by 59% of the survey respondents, was restoring trust in government. As President Biden has noted, democracy is fragile. Failing to restore trust in government threatens the democracy on which this country was founded and everything else that has been built by Americans on top of that foundation.

For more on Trust in the Modern Workplace, check out UKG's recent research report on the topic.

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