The Role of Trust in Fostering a Vibrant Economy

Posted: October 25, 2016

Did you know that efforts to build trust in your community can strengthen your local economy? A range of recent social science research strongly identifies trust-building as a viable economic development strategy that holds the potential for substantial economic gains - for the organizations, communities, and regions that invest the time and resources required.

More and more, communities and organizations are recognizing the invaluable role trust plays in effectively meeting their missions. But did you know that social science research has also documented a positive relationship between trust among citizens in a local region and that region's economic performance or prosperity? This is true because when citizens trust one another and the institutions that affect them they openly exchange ideas, perspectives, goods, and services within the local community – all of which has been proven to enhance economic performance. In short, building trust at the local community level is a viable economic development strategy that holds the potential for substantial economic gains - for the organizations, communities, and regions that invest the time and resources required.

While there are several well recognized ‘keys’ to building trust (discussed below), it is important to understand that fostering trust in our communities often starts with ensuring opportunities to hold each other accountable. When citizens have the opportunity to hold each other and their institutions accountable through effective engagement and effective communication, they can build the foundations of trust necessary for a vibrant economy and a responsive community. This has proven to be the case even in communities that have suffered a past ‘trust deficit’. But it won’t by accident!

Without a purposeful and consistent effort to foster trust and build strong relationships at every opportunity and level, even the most well-intentioned community program or projects will almost certainly fail or fall short of the goals it seeks to achieve.

As is also well documented, however, trust in our institutions, governments, science and even each other has been declining for decades. So what can Pennsylvania communities, residents, organizations, and governmental units do to improve the level of trust in their communities?

First, it important to understand the drivers contributing to a decline in trust – in general, or in your community. Some of these may include:

  • Perceptions of bias of those convening or facilitating the process or in the information available
  • Limited engagement with, or understanding of the processes and expectations of engagement and community decision making
  • A history of broken promises, mismanagement or even frayed past relationships
  • Political polarization and the reliance on ‘proxy attributes’ guiding pre-conceived perceptions
  • Persistence of ‘wicked issues’ – the increasingly complex issues we face with limited or no agreement about the inherent root causes, consequences, solutions, or authorities for addressing them
  • Increased distance between professionals and citizens as governance processes and activities become increasingly specialized and complex

From a realistic perspective, an understanding of these trust drivers in your community or organization is critical to being able to diagnose challenges, facilitate effective engagement, strengthen accountability, improve decision-making and ultimately foster greater trust.

Keys to Building Trust and Accountability

Several imperatives are found throughout the substantial trust-related research. Each of these can be enhanced – or conversely undermined – in a number of implicit and explicit ways.

  • Effective communication. If pursued effectively, the more citizens and communities understand the process, your goals and intended outcomes, the information they need to make an informed decision, the perspectives of each other, and their role(s) and stake in the process and issue, the more trust your efforts will engender and be able to build from in the long-run.
  • Respect. While this sounds obvious, it is absolutely essential that the tone, content, and facilitation of your community relationships and efforts genuinely respects the input of all participants or members – even if it’s sometimes difficult.
  • Transparency of processes. Your entire engagement and program efforts should be clear and well-understood by all stakeholders, devoid of ‘hidden’ or alternative agendas (personal, political, or informational), and honest about the role and influence citizens will have in the either the decision-making or implementation of solutions. Many community engagement efforts have failed to be as transparent as their citizens or stakeholders have expected.
  • Sharing information widely. Effective communication, engagement and decision making processes requires that everyone involved is working from a common understanding of the issue and each other’s perspectives. If participants or residents feel that information is only shared with some members or does not do justice to all perspectives on an issue, you are very unlikely to be able to create the trust and accountability you need for effective or sustainable trust building.
  • Engaging stakeholders in meaningful ways. Citizens and stakeholders will show greater trust in, and affinity for, their community where effective processes are in place that account for and integrate their perspectives and priorities, respect their contributions, and employ their skills in a manner that they feel appropriate

While all this may seem like a heavy lift or require a shift in the way your community, organization, or agency does business, the research clearly indicates that without purposefully addressing the need to foster trust and accountability at every opportunity your organization or community is almost certain to be at a long-term competitive disadvantage both economically and socially.

For more information on the underlying research described here or to explore strategies for ensuring your community or organization has the information and skills it needs to effectively foster a trust-building environment contact our Economic and Community Development Team or visit our Engagement Toolbox.

Contact Information

Walt Whitmer
  • Extension Educator, Energy, Entrepreneurship, and Community Development
Phone: 814-865-0468