Talking, taking credit and storytelling: How agencies can build trust with their workforce and the public
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Talking, taking credit and storytelling: How agencies can build trust with their workforce and the public

March 6, 2024

Research from the Partnership for Public Service shows that, although one-third of Americans trust the federal government, their trust in civil servants is much higher. But federal agencies still face a trust deficit—both externally and internally. 

To better understand this gap, the Partnership and the Senior Executives Association hosted a session on Feb. 13 that featured agency staff discussing their challenges and efforts around building trust within their agency and with the public.  

Below are some of the key takeaways from that discussion.  

1. Leadership changes generate cycles of distrust  

Several agency staff shared how leadership changes, which are relatively frequent for federal agencies, create distrust between leaders and their staff. They shared that both new leaders and existing staff are skeptical of each other’s ability to carry out their responsibilities and the agency mission. Many were able to overcome this hurdle and build trust over time, but those efforts must be renewed when a new leader comes in. 

2. Meaningful communication is central to building trust 

Staff also emphasized the importance of clear and intentional communication to overcome distrust.  

“You can’t build trust on the first crisis that occurs,” one agency employee told us, adding that both leaders and staff need to make an effort to get to know one another at the outset in order to build trusting relationships.  

Trust is also reciprocal, one staff member told us. Building internal trust cannot be achieved by the sole efforts of new leaders—existing staff also need to be open to new systems of learning and new styles of leadership.  

Increased transparency around decision-making and new changes is also key to building and maintaining trust. This means clearly communicating what changes are being made and why to both internal and external stakeholders.  

“If you want people to trust the message,” one employee told us, “then [leaders] need to be the one to deliver it.” 

3. Take credit where credit is due 

One employee told us that their agency struggles to share its wins internally and with the public.  

“We have good public servants that do great work that people never hear about,” the employee said, noting that this has an impact on how trustworthy an agency is viewed by its customers. Being able to share success stories and take credit for good work would improve trustworthiness while showing fellow agency staff the impact they can achieve through their role.

Over the next year, the Partnership will continue to study the drivers of distrust in government and develop strategies for agencies to build trust with internal and external audiences. To learn more about out trust work, visit our website and our Trust in Government Dashboard

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