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Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010

SPEA policy brief: Restoring trust in government is essential

Sept. 2, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- At a time when Americans seem to increasingly distrust each other, an Indiana University professor argues that creating trustworthy institutions -- especially within government -- is a key to rebuilding the nation's social capital.

"Restoring trust in government is the first step to restoration of generalized social trust," writes Sheila Suess Kennedy, "because we rely on government to insure the trustworthiness of other social institutions."

Sheila Kennedy

Sheila Kennedy

Print-Quality Photo

Kennedy's policy brief, "Trust Me, Said the Spider," appears in the July 2010 issue of SPEA Insights, a series of policy briefs from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. A professor and director of public affairs programs with SPEA at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, she is the author of Distrust American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence (Prometheus Books, 2009).

"Americans are not in a trusting mood," Kennedy writes. "We don't trust our government -- in a recent Pew survey, just 22 percent of respondents said they trust the federal government most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century -- and if we are to believe social scientists, we don't trust each other, either."

In her analysis, Kennedy draws on a range of sources, including the contemporary American social critic Robert Putnam, the Belgian scholar Marc Hooghe and the writer-activist Jane Jacobs. She examines the impact of diversity on social trust and the interplay of trust and reciprocity as elements of social capital, the connections that people establish within networks.

In simpler times, she writes, people developed trust on the basis of what they knew about others, relying on reputation, gossip and word-of-mouth. But in modern-day society, we necessarily rely on faceless institutions to carry out vital transactions every day.

"We have no choice but to put our trust in the complex web of institutions we have created -- police, government regulatory agencies, Better Business Bureaus, watchdog industry groups, and the like -- to maintain the trustworthiness of our economic and social systems," she writes.

Kennedy points out that Americans count on government to ensure that water is drinkable, aircraft are flyable and roads are passable, along with many other essential duties. She says restoring transparency, accountability and trustworthiness to government should be the first order of business.

"Trust in government sets the tone for confidence in all social institutions," she writes.

A link to the policy brief and a video clip of Kennedy discussing trust as an issue in immigration politics are online at Insights.shtml.