How Government Can Restore the Faith of Citizens

Would we appreciate government more if we could see what it was doing to help citizens? Research by Michael Norton and Ryan Buell.
by Michael Blanding

Henry David Thoreau once said, "That government is best that governs least." Easy for him to say. Stuck out by himself at Walden Pond, he never had to deal with potholes on his morning commute or broken streetlights at night.

It can be fashionable to rail against government—but that may be because we mostly notice the things that government gets wrong. "You drive for miles on perfectly paved roads but are outraged when you run into one pothole," says Michael I. Norton, an associate professor in the Marketing unit at Harvard Business School.

It's hard to blame people for feeling that way, however, when most of what we see government doing is slinging potshots on the news, says Norton. "The American people think government does nothing because most of what they see is politicians talking," he says. "There is a very tenuous link between people arguing in Congress and the streets getting fixed."

“The sweet spot is where you are working hard, but also getting things done”

In a new paper, Surfacing the Submerged State with Operational Transparency in Government Services, Norton worked with Ryan W. Buell, assistant professor in the Technology and Operations Management unit, to see what would happen if they showed people exactly what government was doing on their behalf—starting on the most basic level of street repairs. Would that kind of transparency increase faith in government overall?

"We are at the point where attitudes about government are at their lowest ever," says Buell. "There is a danger that that disgust can lead to disengagement. Showing the ways in which government materially affects people's lives through its actions has the potential to improve perceptions and increase engagement."

In previous research , Buell and Norton had experimented with customer satisfaction in travel and dating websites. They found that when these sites visually showed the effort being exerted by the site during searches or transactions, customers were more likely to be satisfied while waiting for results. "There is a strange human tendency to value effort independent of outcome," says Norton. "If you appear to be working hard and sweating, people will assume you are doing a good job."

There's an app for that

Buell and Norton put that into practice by partnering with an organization called Code for America, which describes itself as the "Peace Corps for Geeks." Its coders take publicly available data and use technology to visualize the work of government for the public in accessible ways. In Boston, for example, the group worked with the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics to release data on public works requests for repairs such as potholes, graffiti, and broken streetlights.

Using a cell phone application developed by the mayor's office, citizens can request service by snapping a photo of the problem and uploading it to the city accompanied by GPS data of its location. These service requests are then visualized on Code for America's Daily Brief website, which Buell and Norton used in their experiment.

The researchers worked with the organization to pilot several versions of the website, each with different visualizations of this data, in order to test its influence on citizens. (See slideshow below.)

Click on image to view slideshow
Websites help  Boston citizens visualize what government is doing to help them.Web sites help Boston citizens visualize what government is doing to help them.

In the first iteration of the website, the researchers included only the number of open requests for repairs, along with the number of requests opened and closed the previous day, in order to show that government was actively responding to requests. In the second condition, they included pins on a map showing the location of these issues; when users clicked on a pin, a window opened showing a photo of the problem along with its description and location.

Buell and Norton found that when shown the second version of the website, users were much more impressed with the work that government was doing—and much more favorable about the efficacy of government overall.

"There's a big difference between providing people with information about what's being done and allowing them to see it for themselves," says Buell. "Moving from the 'base case' where we just show statistics to a transparent version of the website that shows the problems that are being addressed, significantly improves attitudes towards government and government service."

When asked if "Government often does a better job than given credit for," only 34 percent of people agreed after viewing the first case; but some 57 percent agreed after the second case. Seeing the visual evidence of government working had broader implications as well. When participants were asked, "In general, is the government's effect on your life positive or negative?" 76 percent said "positive" after viewing the first case—but a full 91 percent gave that answer after viewing the second.

Pins and potholes

Transparency by itself doesn't always improve perceptions, however. In a third version of the website, Buell and Norton not only included pins on the map for the repair requests that had recently been opened and closed, but also included pins for all open requests. Thus, instead of seeing a few dozen pins representing jobs recently reported or completed, they saw thousands of pins representing jobs yet to be done.

When surveyed on their views towards government, those participants' views were no more favorable than the participants shown the first case with no pins at all. "It's one thing to show what government is doing, but in this case, it is also showing you what government is not doing, and that becomes more salient," says Buell. He hastens to add that perceptions in the last case weren't worse than the perceptions in the first—they just weren't any better.

Those results, however, suggest that effort by itself is not enough; it must also be coupled with a positive outcome. Norton compares it to results in their online dating research in which users were more satisfied when they saw the website working hard for them during searching-but only if they ended with attractive or average looking people at the end of the search. "If they received less attractive people, they were actually angrier," says Norton. "They could blame themselves, but of course no one ever did."

In the same way, citizens may be happier with their government if they see it working hard on their behalf-but only if they see it actually accomplishing what it sets out to do. "The sweet spot," says Buell, "is where you are working hard, but also getting things done." Even Thoreau would have to look kindly on government then.

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

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    • Tom Dolembo
    • Founder/Director, New North Institute
    I had the opportunity in my youth in the 1960's, as a deputy mayor of a northwest Indiana community, of working from time to time with Richard J Daley and his famous machine. "Never bury your public works" and "only do something for a neighborhood when they ask for it, then do it fast and do it well," were mantras. Trust is subjective. Since my main job was to install storm sewers, expensive and invisible, it was cold comfort, and bitter truth.
    • Ashwin Hurribunce
    • Executive Director, IQ Business (Pty) Ltd
    As humanity we must feel embarrassed and accept the indictment for not being vigilant citizens of our respective countries and keeping any delivery entity in check for what we deserve having being responsible citizens. This field study might confirm in reality what we all know but are either lethargic or apathetic to see happen. We ignore aspects that are a matter of course, possibly discouraged by their unsophisticated-ness, but get a rude awakening when we fall fatally into the very pothole we have been ignoring or hoping that some 'lesser' person will be inspire to alert the relevant authority to address it. The basics or an obligatory part of life - the more we deviate and put distance between ourselves and it, the more we become the fools and not the governments of the day. As for them, we put them there so why all the fuss?
    • Tim Cargill
    • Buis dev, Private company
    As a European, I can only consider this article as one of needed possible way for our politicians to revamp their link to the citizens, which is badly weakened whatever the country, province or city.
    Any clue if foreign cities representative or even political parties approach the researchers on this topic?
    • Will Wilkin
    • Co-Owner-Operator, Made In USA Solar LLC
    The biggest pothole is our trade deficit, and here we see the Executive and Legislative branches, through the "fast track" bill and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, scurrying to make it even worse by expanding the NAFTA model to Asia and the rest of Latin America.

    Public works are indeed important, as is education and so much more of what government does, but since the authors mention that the most salient impressions are of what government is getting wrong, that is true more in trade policy than virtually any other aspect of governance.

    Why? Because the Free Trade export of our manufacturing capacity and jobs and tax base are at the root of the spreading unemployment, poverty, and fiscal crises at the local and state levels.
    • Nyunt Shwe
    • Retired, None
    Excellent!!! If downloadable PDF version is included, it'll be easier to keep for redistribution and reference.
    I wish all the lip-service government like my own Myanmar government find and read this kind of articles!
    • Mervyn Extavour
    • Director/President/Consultant, Accreditation Council of T&T./NATPETT
    This is particularly true, as constituents prefer to see action and personal involvement of politicians in the trenches - so to speak, rather than suffer through long speeches o promises.
    However, the article and the side show can easily fit into a Government activity involving the fixing of roads, but we will have to be more creative with other matters such as 'health-care' or social activities - probably more interaction with community personnel can lead in this direction - since President Obama demonstrated this before becoming the main figure in the White House.
    A great lesson for all politicians.
    • Jo Nel
    • CEO, Edupark
    This should be required reading by all governments - especially the South African one, that LOVES collecting taxes, spending on corruptly acquired contracts, and generally aiding and abetting the emptying of its citizens' pockets.
    • Bill
    So people believe what a government-created website tells them? I thought Obama had polluted that pool! Great ideas though.
    • Robert Tobing
    • Senior Consultant/Lecturer, Leadership Inc/University of Indonesia
    Approaching national elections for Indonesian new President and member of House of Rep in 2014,this article should be required reading by all candidates.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Citizens will have faith in the Government which gives a real practical shape to what it promises to provide. Big planning, loud speeches and statistics on paper alone do not satisfy citizens. They are watchful of what all is being done and achieved for their welfare and smooth living. Intentional leadership with positive result-oriented approach works. Even if there are some failures, these need to be boldly admitted, correctives initiated and all made known of these efforts plainly and transparently with at the same time sincere approach to achieve the goals.
    • Krishna
    If we are unhappy with Government, our only choice (on a day to day basis) is to "disengage". Whereas in the private sector, we have a choice to buy a competitor's product. The problem with Government is the monopoly it inevitably seeks for its services.

    Why are we stuck trying to fix an institution that has no incentives (at the middle level) to improve and the only option is to change the CEO and board of directors every 4 years? Let's offer the consumer choice and let the magic of competition do its thing