The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 28, 2011

United in Distrust of Government

October 28, 2011

Americans suffer “deep distrust” of government according to last week’s New York Times/CBS News poll results.  Fully 89 percent don’t trust government to do the right thing, and 74% think the country is on the wrong track. Three quarters of us don’t think Congress will do anything about our high unemployment rate either.  For the small minority of yea-sayers, numbers as overwhelming as these have to prompt self-doubt.  And the malaise is not confined to the Federal government — local bodies from town councils to library boards are under suspicion too.

But what can be done to redress this distrust?  Perhaps there are lessons to be had from places where there are many more reasons to distrust government than we have here.  Take Pakistan.  In 2008, we surveyed 4000 Pakistanis on their satisfaction with government services.  Half reported having to pay bribes to get health care. Half didn’t send their children to public school because the schools weren’t good enough (and only 10% send their kids to private school instead).  Only a fifth of urban Pakistanis had covered sewers in their neighborhood and only 2 percent of rural residents did.  Americans might react by saying “Now there’s something to complain about!”   And as low as satisfaction was with local government, it was greater than satisfaction with higher levels of government.

Local Pakistani governments, accountable mainly to distant provincial officials, collect local fees and taxes only intermittently and have few mechanisms for building trust of citizens.  Looking at under- performing schools in the Northwest Frontier Province (now called “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province”), we found more than 200 performance measures  routinely supplied to Provincial officials but seldom used to manage schools. We identified 219 under-performing schools and worked with local school officials to engage parents on school performance. Parent groups each picked four of the official benchmarks to monitor locally. Just one year later, only 29 of the original 219 schools were still sub-par.  No extra funds were spent, no teachers were fired, and nobody leaned heavily on foreign expertise in school administration.  Instead, a simple local exchange of expectations about future outcomes, reinforced with monitoring, changed outcomes and began to inculcate trust. Interestingly, many parent groups chose to monitor school measures that affected girls’ attendance-- reliable electricity and toilets, a wall around the schoolyard.  The reward for attending to these non-pedagogic inputs was that fewer students failed to advance.

While ours was not a rigorous experiment, it suggests that if citizens home in on what government can actually do with the resources it has, they can spur trust-reinforcing outcomes – even in a difficult environment where citizens lack much formal voice in their communities.

If happiness is not confined to rich countries (Happy peasants and miserable millionaires?), then it seems also that unhappiness is not confined to poor ones. Our Pakistan anecdote certainly validates the development aid community’s current thinking that a greater voice in their own affairs makes citizens value government services more and — through greater accountability — raises service levels (albeit in ways we don’t exactly understand yet). Couldn’t the same be true here?

Soon, the US National League of Cities (NLC) might be able to tell us.  The NLC is showcasing local leaders who are successfully addressing the “growing disconnect between citizens and government. “ Using lessons from around the US, but also from Brazil and elsewhere (including Pakistan, we’d like to recommend!)  the NLC is offering its members tools for giving citizens more voice in how  government funds are spent — ways to move beyond heated rhetoric to action.

These modest initiatives by some municipal leaders won’t end the broader political discontent that seems to baffle our national leaders, but they do show that there’s more than hand-wringing that can be done – in Peshawar or in Paducah.

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