Public Management

The meaning of trust in a changed context

April 3, 2014

What is the meaning of trust in the relationship government-citizens and which remedies exist for the diminishing trust of citizens in the government? That was the question that Sophia Viet asked in her thesis as the head of a team of area managers at the municipality of Tilburg. A literature survey showed varying opinions on what trust is and the purpose of trust. These could be divided into four categories of approaches: the rational, the normative, the emotional and the value approaches. The meaning that is assigned to trust, the diagnosis for the diminishing trust and the remedies for this decrease follow from the approach that is chosen.

Image: © Nationale Beeldbank

The rational approaches place trust in a transaction-relationship that is entered into with a view to maximizing value. Trust is driven by individual interest and is an instrument for reducing transaction costs and for stimulating co-operation and innovation. In the relationship government/citizen, trust is a guarantee against the abuse of power and a condition for the effectiveness, the efficiency and the legitimacy of government action. A decrease occurs whenever government performance falls short of the expectations of the citizen. The government can increase the trust of its citizens by ensuring that its performance better fits these expectations.

The normative approaches consider trust the norm, as a social obligation stemming from solidarity. Trust is primarily trust in society. A decrease in the degree of trust in the government is a sign of a decrease in the trust in society. Restoration of trust requires restoration of the social cohesion and shared norms and values.

Concerning the emotional approaches, trust is an aspect of a social relationship and the appreciation of a social-emotional bond. A decrease in the trust in the government is connected with a decrease in the trust in the persons who represent the government. Restoration of trust is necessary in order to ensure the well-being of the citizen, among other things, and can be achieved by recognizing the unique identity and emotionality of the citizen and through bilateral communication with the citizen.

The value approaches consider man a moral being. This being draws from competencies, integrity and good intentions. These are also the sources of reliability. Trust results from the sense of solidarity and compassion and manifests itself in tolerance, offering security and the willingness and desire to work together. And with that, the responsibility for the restoration of trust lies with the individual with all his/her roles in society.

Whereas the image of man as an economic being dominated the eighties, the nineties saw the focus shift to man as a collectively moral being. Man as an emotional being gained interest around the turn of the century. Man as an individual moral being drew increasingly more attention in the first decade of this century. Because man as a moral being cannot be considered separate from man as an emotional and rational being, the image of man in the value approaches can be interpreted as holistic. And so the choice for the method in which a municipality organizes the relationship with its citizens and the role that it attaches to trust is bound by the spirit of the times.

In the next section, Arno Schepers concludes the theme Trust and the volume with 'Trust in Zeist', in which he reports on his study into the influence of interactive plan-making on the trust that the inhabitants of Zeist have in their municipality.

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