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Aiming for increased trust – is that the right way to go? (On the public sector)

In later years, trust has become an increasingly important factor for government agencies that have a lot of contact with the citizens. In this study, Statskontoret (the Swedish Agency for Public Management) draws conclusions regarding the conditions under which steering towards increased trust may be effective, and what considerations must be made when implementing this type of steering. We are looking in particular at Skatteverket (the Swedish Tax Agency), Försäkringskassan (the Swedish Social Insurance Agency), Arbetsförmedlingen (The Swedish Public Employment Service) and Polismyndigheten (the Police Authority), for which the appropriation directions in later years have contained provisions on having the citizens' trust.

Summary assessment

Statskontoret makes the overall assessment that appropriately formulated steering measures towards increased trust may promote activity development and contribute to streamlining the agencies' operations. One condition, however, is that the steering is balanced so as to not adversely affect the rule of law and other values.

Reasons for government agencies to work on trust

The government agencies are not directly subordinate to the citizens, but instead constitute the government's tools to implement determined policy. At the same time, there are several reasons, beyond the formal requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, for the agencies to strive to build the citizens' trust. Research has shown that a country's prosperity is linked, among other things, to the citizens trusting the administration.

Different reasons for public agencies to work on trust

The reasons for working on building trust differ between the various agencies. For Försäkringskassan and Arbetsförmedlingen, the low level of trust is a starting point for making changes to their activities. For Polismyndigheten on the other hand, maintaining a high level of trust is a desirable side effect of the streamlining process the agency is undergoing. Skatteverket views trust as a condition to efficiently bring in taxes from the citizens.

The agencies have to varying degrees integrated the trust efforts with their other activities. There may be several reasons for this; for example, the conditions of those with high and low levels of trust vary. For agencies with a low level of trust, this issue may have to be made a higher priority.

Benefits of trying to increase trust

Statskontoret is also of the opinion that the following benefits may be associated with trying to increase or maintain the level of trust.

The authorities become more sensitive towards the users

Trust is built for example by ensuring that the users are satisfied with the agencies' services. This means that the agencies are working actively on matters of treatment and other service-related values, which fits well with the service obligation that is set out in the Administrative Procedure Act.

Striving to have satisfied users may lead to rationalization

The agencies' efforts to make things easier for the users, for example by utilising e-services, have contributed to rationalizations, even if Statskontoret cannot assess how strong of an influence this has had.

The activity development of the agencies may benefit

The fact that the agencies take the user perspective as the starting point means that they adapt their communication and processing to the users' needs. This may promote the agencies' activity development.

The agencies may find it easier to make an impact with their measures

A high level of trust may make it easier for the agencies to make an impact with their measures. One example would be that the taxpayers' willingness to comply may increase if they have a high level of trust in Skatteverket.

Downsides of trying to increase trust

Statskontoret is of the opinion that there may also be downsides to trying to increase trust.

The legal perspective may have to take a backseat

There is a risk of other values being set aside if the steering is not balanced. Inspektionen för socialförsäkringen (The Swedish Social Insurance Inspectorate) notes that Försäkringskassan has made the legal perspective a lower priority to benefit customer satisfaction in parts of its processing.

Trust is a strong word, but a vague concept

The concept of trust has a strong signal value, while it may difficult to discern what lies behind it. It may entail a risk that the evaluation of an agency with a low level of trust becomes exceedingly negative.

Trust is not a measurement of the agency's effectiveness

The level of trust is not necessarily related to the agency's actions. Trust is also influenced by external factors beyond the agency's control. Consequently it is not a reliable indication of the agency's effectiveness or of how well it carries out its assignment.

A strong emphasis on customer satisfaction may lead to injustice

The customer focus that often results from the trust efforts entails a risk of injustice in processing and decisions. An excessive emphasis on customer experience may lead to individuals with more resources getting their will more often than others.

Measures to achieve effective steering

Statskontoret is of the opinion that there are measures the agencies can take to make their efforts to increase trust effective:

  • Do not direct steering measures unilaterally towards trust and ensure that the rule of law and other values are not made secondary priorities.
  • Be patient in these efforts, as trust is a complex concept that may be sluggish.
  • Analyse the cause of the lack in trust and follow up on such factors as depend on the agency's activities.
  • Clearly involve the staff in the efforts relating to treatment.
  • Use indicators other than trust to measure the agency effectiveness or its fulfilment of the assignment.
  • Design and organise work based on the tasks and conditions of the individual agency.