more information, less trust

I have argued here that experts and policymakers think of accountability in terms of information, whereas citizens think of it in terms of relationships. Giving people more information about things like public employees’ salaries, students’ test scores, or federal spending will not increase their trust if what they are looking for is contact (or a feeling of contact) with human beings.

That hypothesis has political implications: it suggests that if you want government to be important and trusted, you’d better make it interactive–which, in turn, requires decentralization (because hardly anyone can interact with a behemoth). By the way, I am not assuming that citizens are correct and experts are wrong. Sometimes information is a more valid basis for trust than relationships are. Sometimes a distant agency that discloses data is more trustworthy than a local sheriff or principal whom you happen to know. But citizens’ preference for relationships has some merit and is certainly an important political fact.

A major basis of my argument was some preliminary data that has now found its way into a published report by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation: Don’t Count Us Out: How An Overreliance On Accountability Could Undermine The Public’s Confidence In Schools, Business, Government, And More. One paragraph from the executive summary is particularly pertinent:

More Information ? More Trust. Perhaps Less!

Typically, people know almost nothing about specific [disclosure] measures, and they rarely see them as clear-cut evidence of effectiveness. Many Americans are deeply skeptical about the accuracy and importance of quantitative measures. Most are suspicious of the ways in which numbers can be manipulated or tell only half the story. Many members of the public feel confused and overwhelmed by the detailed information flying past them in the name of “disclosure” and “transparency.” Many fear they are being manipulated by the complex presentations. More and more statistics do not reassure, so in fact, more information can actually lead to less public trust.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.