Mind the [trust] gap!

Proposed experiment for enhancing people's trust in public institutions

June 7, 2024

Distrust & Toxic Polarization Powered by Mis-Disinformation

Public institutions are losing people’s trust. UNDP’s trends report for 2024 outlines ‘the trust deficit’ as a theme that currently shapes the development landscape. This diminishing trust in national institutions seems to be a global challenge, potentially leading to increased polarization, democratic backsliding and shrinking of civic spaces. Enhanced distrust drives societal and political polarization, which has been noted as the third greatest current risk that could present a crisis on a global scale in 2024.  The latest Human Development Report speaks about group-based polarization as widespread phenomena, one that affects politics and shapes how global challenges can be addressed. Polarization often translates to intolerance, aversion to making compromises and zero-sum thinking, that sometimes leads to political gridlock. The added challenge of mis-disinformation further erodes our information ecosystems, complicating our ability to address global challenges and in turn hindering human development. 

Open government principles 

Distrust and toxic polarization powered by mis-disinformation are mutually constitutive and reinforce each other. It is important, therefore, to design and test new ideas, open policies that are accessible to all, aiming to make a dent in mitigating this global issue. One of the key policy message’s from OECD’s working paper on governance responses to disinformation is that ‘governments would benefit from a more holistic approach to disinformation’, guided by open government principles. Furthermore, one of the prescribed UNDP strategies for promoting information integrity is building trust, by providing trustworthy information that reach people at scale. Open government principles are also reflected in the indicators of Sustainable Development Goal 16, particularly in ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms. Recently, we learned that there has been a significant increase in the number of countries adopting laws that guarantee public access to information, rising one third since 2015. Another significant initiative is the European Commission Transparency Register, a ‘database of organizations that try to influence the law-making and policy implementation process of the EU institutions’. This register allows for public scrutiny of the interests being pursued and creates conditions for people and organizations to track these activities. 

These illustrative solutions are important and seen as a step in the right direction in enhancing public trust towards national institutions.  Academic literature also takes interest in conducting experiments that provide novel insights into the links between accountability and (perceived) legitimacy. While various scholars suggest that enhanced accountability can restore citizens’ trust and confidence in public institutions, experiments and studies show more nuanced results. One can argue that policy experimentation in this space is important to give us more insights about the interplay between trust and transparency. Furthermore, the promise of experimentation is that it can provide us with unique insights about a proposed intervention, that can help us make a rational argument whether we should roll a policy out to scale. 

That is exactly what we would like to put forward, а proposed experiment that governments/institutions/organizations can pilot and learn from it prior to deciding if it can/should be scaled. We also believe that it is worth exploring if this type of intervention could indeed enhance people’s trust in national institutions, by allowing more transparency and giving people and organizations more access to the daily program content of decision makers in our democratic societies. 


Proposed experiment

The proposed policy experiment, explores the dilemma: can we enhance organizational transparency and in turn increase people’s trust in an institution by having the daily agendas/schedules of decision-makers in that institution open to the public? 

This proposed experiment is designed to provide the public with in-depth information about the daily agenda of the decision-makers in public institutions, including the meetings they are attending, events they are participating in, and potentially the outcomes and goals of their daily tasks.  

Conditional upon the interest of public institutions willing to partake in this endeavor, the principles that this experiment should abide by include:

  • The daily agenda/ schedules of the public officials should be updated regularly and be easily accessible by the public [the websites of the institutions they are representing seem like a suitable venue for having content related to their daily schedules/agenda’s].
  • The agendas/schedules should offer program insights into the work of the public officials and go beyond simply stating their itinerary. By providing programmatic substantive content attached to the itinerary of the public officials we can get insights to public policymaking processes and ideas formulation and implementation. 
  • Currently, there are examples of institutions/officials that have their schedules public, including the President of France [link], the Prime Minister of Canda [link], the President of the European Council [link] or the US Department of State collection of public schedules [link]. These are useful blueprints for other public institutions to follow suit and potentially experiment with even richer programmatic content attached to their agendas. 
  • There are also examples for opening up the schedules of public officials in the Western Balkan region. Namely, we see a version of the proposed practice being established on the website of the office of the Prime Minister in Kosovo*[1] available on this link.
  • Our proposal is to build on this experience with further enhancing the substantive program insights attached to their public agendas. 

This mini experiment will allow us to frame a research agenda adjacent to the proposed experiment that will help us learn about people’s behavior and perceptions. For instance, we can imagine complementary activities to this experiment that include: 

  • Research activities that will allow us to obtain more insights about the links between institutional transparency/accountability and the perceived legitimacy/ enhanced trust in those institutions.
  • How the experiment contributes to ongoing efforts to preemptively debunk dis-misinformation?
  • Frequency of new research and news stories inspired by the insights from the experiment.
  • What are the institutional bottlenecks and barriers when pursuing an experiment?
  • Would programmatic insights on the work of public institution follow the opening of the agenda of the public officials?
  • Will this experiment add data and insights that CSOs could potentially use as a platform for enhanced engagement in decision-making and reform processes? Something that for North Macedonia has been a recommendation in the 2023 EU progress report.  

The Accelerator Labs try to enhance UNDP's existing work on information integrity by experimenting with adaptive solutions that resonate with the local context, and leverage trusted community voices, recognizing the uniqueness of the development challenges. In that context, we are interested in further researching and exploring the area of interplay between trust, open governance principles and publicly available information. If your institution or organization is interested in partnering with us to pilot this idea and develop a research agenda related to this policy experiment, please contact our team. We understand that every institution interested in conducting this experiment, will need to have a tailor-made approach on design-implementation of these activities, and a unique manner to connect to the public, and we are prepared to offer policy advice on how to do this.  Together, we aim to offer new insights to the public and actionable intelligence to policymakers. 

[1] References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).