Viewpoint: Trust and service satisfaction – what’s the difference and what do you do about it?

This blog originally featured in Local Government Information Unit

Trust is key to any relationship; David Evans looks at how solid community engagement can increase the levels of trust between local government and residents.

Writing nearly a decade ago, in an era when public trust was a less burning issue than today, the think tank DEMOS put their finger on an interesting phenomenon. They called this the ‘performance paradox’, and defined it as follows:

Objective performance is not the only criterion that people use to evaluate government – expectations, perceptions and socio-economic factors all have an impact… These factors have led to a situation in the UK in which many people admit to having positive personal interactions with public services, but consider the public sector as a whole to be performing poorly – the so-called ‘performance paradox’ in which services improve, but satisfaction falls.

Similarly, the research suggested that if residents have a bad interaction with local government they blame the authority. But if they have a good one they credit the individual member of staff who dealt with them.

More recently the same phenomenon was described by commentators in the 2016 US presidential race. They dubbed it the ‘Iowa Paradox’, describing how the economy was doing pretty well for people, but trust was low and contempt for the political class was high.

For councils in the UK, the ‘performance paradox’ is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. Despite impressive levels of trust compared to national institutions (PDF document), trust in local government still lags behind service satisfaction – which in turn lags behind general satisfaction with life in the local area.

This disconnect creates a challenge for authorities. Service satisfaction is potentially brittle. It doesn’t require residents to understand competing priorities and pressures. And it won’t necessarily last if service quality fails. Trust, on the other hand, is a more ‘earned’ quality. It’s defined less by how good people feel bin collections are, and more by how engaged they feel and how much they sense the council is ‘on their side’. It’s more likely to have a positive knock-on effect for other things, like social cohesion.

How you bridge the gap between the two is of course the million-dollar question. We discuss it in New Conversations, an interactive LGA guide on community engagement, which we at TCC authored. It seems important, in an era which is more post-trust than “post-truth”, to try and think about it.

While we don’t claim, in New Conversations, to come up with a bona fide answer to this most intangible of issues, a few clear elements come out of the work. (‘Pillar K’, on p.150 of the New Conversations guide, is especially useful).

Firstly, an emphasis on continuous engagement is key. As one former council CEO put it, when we spoke to him for the guide, “It goes a long way if you speak to people before something’s gone wrong.” Listening events, town hall meetings and other efforts to proactively bring people in all help fix the roof when the sun’s shining, helping prevent things escalating into ill-tempered consultation impasses. (This example from Kensington & Chelsea, which we cite in the guide, is a good example of how you might do this).

Secondly, qualitative approaches, which focus on the ‘Why?’ as well as the ‘What?’ make a big difference. Most councils will track resident satisfaction using quantitative methods. But getting people round the table and drilling a bit deeper can help tease out the underlying reasons. It gives texture and helps understand the deeper reasoning around trust, in a way that large-sample questionnaires about roads or streetlights can’t. If you can get influential local people like publicans or hairdressers to attend the events, you can often really take the temperature, fostering better relations in the process. And by repeating over time and developing a metric of some sort to track qualitative opinion, you can create a virtuous circle, where engagement and satisfaction-tracking start to overlap.

Ultimately, there’s no magic bullet for the ‘performance paradox’. Other things in the New Conversations guide, like the role of frontline staff, play an important role too. But the key message is that, the more you really listen and engage with residents, the more you can develop the sorts of durable trust relationships on which strong communities are built.

David Evans, Founder at The Campaign Company