Government’s trust conundrum

journalism / Article

Over the past several years, an increasing number of governments, businesses, social sector organizations and technologists have supported efforts to make government data more accessible and useful. Knight Foundation has actively supported this growing Open Government movement, funding organizations such as Sunlight Foundation and Code for America as well as hosting a Knight News Challenge focused specifically on Open Government.

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Pew Research Center

"Public Is Somewhat Optimistic about Open Data Initiatives Making Government More Accountable, Yet Few Say Government Effectively Shares Data with the Public" -- Press release, 4/21/2015

Yet, Open Government data is not something on the minds of most people according to a study released today by Pew Research Center. In the report “Americans’ Views on Open Government Data,” which was funded by Knight Foundation, only 31 percent of people said they could think of either a positive example of the government providing data or a negative example where the government did not provide enough useful data. Taken conversely, that means 69 percent of people are not thinking much about government data.

Even when accounting for the public’s generally low consciousness of government data and initiatives underway to improve its accessibility and utility, the report clearly shows that Americans believe government at all levels could do a better job releasing data. Only 5 percent believe that the federal and state government does a “very effective” job sharing data, and 7 percent say the same for local government.

What’s perhaps more surprising, though, is the good deal of skepticism about whether government efforts to share more data will even have an impact. Survey respondents were fairly even split about whether more government data sharing could possibly make government officials more accountable (53 percent said yes; 45 percent said no), improve the quality of government services (49 percent said yes; 49 percent said no) and result in better decisions by government officials (45 percent said yes; 53 percent said no).

A lack of trust in government is fundamental in explaining why so many people do not believe open data initiatives can make an impact. People who report trusting the government are far more likely to believe government data can be used to drive impact. However, only a minority of people report trusting government to do what is right; more specifically 40 percent trust local government, 32 percent trust state government and a paltry 23 percent trust federal government.

The survey questions about trust in government yield perhaps the most fascinating insights in the study. Digging deeper into the data unearths the following findings:

• While levels of trust in local government hardly vary by age, trust in federal government declines by age group, going from 28 percent for those ages 18-29 to 17 percent for those 65-plus.

• Trust in federal government is identical among those earning $75,000-plus and those earning less than $30,000, but there’s a sharp divergence in trust in local government by income, with 48 percent of respondents earning $75,000-plus saying they trust local government compared to 32 percent who earn less than $30,000. College graduates indicate higher levels of trust across all three levels of government.

• The differences in trust by race and ethnicity are also remarkable. While 19 percent of white respondents report trusting federal government compared to 29 percent of black respondents, this dynamic flips for trust in local government, which is 43 percent among whites and 28 percent among blacks.

Undoubtedly, a greater focus is needed on explaining to the public how increasing the accessibility and utility of government data can drive accountability, improve government service delivery and even provide the grist for new startup businesses. The short-term conundrum government data initiatives face is that while they ultimately seek to increase government trustworthiness, they may struggle to gain structure because the present lack of trust in government undermines their perceived impact.

Jonathan Sotsky is director of strategy and assessment for Knight Foundation.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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