The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the nature of trust between governments and citizens into stark relief. Where lives saved depends heavily on public health communication to ensure public compliance, trust in the source of information and its commitment to the public good is paramount.
Although acute in our current moment, trust between governments and citizens is a longstanding topic of interest for scholars and organizers, influencing every policy arena. Notably, it has emerged as a key context factor in understanding corruption along the natural resources value chain, a key area of study for R4D’s Accountability & Citizen Engagement and Evaluation & Adaptive Learning teams through the Leveraging Transparency to Reduce Corruption Project (LTRC). As part of our ongoing work in Nigeria, a country with large reserves of oil whose extraction contributes significantly to government budgets, the LTRC team set out to better understand social trust and how it might influence programming designed to improve governance and reduce corruption through increased transparency, accountability and participation.
Here, we distill some of the lessons learned about strengthening social trust through aligning shared expectations.
Why social trust?
Social trust is “the degree to which individuals in a society share, and believe others share, mutually beneficial goals, regardless of ethnic, racial, or religious categories.” When social trust is low and citizens doubt the motivations of others, they become more likely to participate in a corrupt system and create favorable environments for additional corruption. These actions, or inactions as they may be, reduce the effectiveness of institutions, disincentivize productive service delivery, and impede civic action for change. Low social trust may also discourage participation as citizens have less confidence in transparency and accountability initiatives. In the context of Nigeria, we wanted to better understand how low social trust and a lack of transparency in budgetary processes and fiscal allocations of revenue may influence the way citizens, governments and the private sector interact, as well as the follow-on effects for budgeting transparency and related initiatives.
In coordination with our partner BudgIT, the LTRC Nigeria team traveled to Delta and Osun states in early 2020. We focused on three key actor types, citizens, government representatives, and oil companies, ultimately interviewing 5 citizen focus groups, 2 CSO representatives, 3 community transparency organizers, 2 government representatives, and one former oil company worker.
Each of our actors presented different challenges to building trust with other actors, which we summarize below.
Citizens are invested in their communities and want their representatives to meet their obligations around project completion, but feel they lack information and effective communication channels to express those desires. Citizens report attempting to contact their representatives, but felt the responses were personally motivated, only interacting with community members when they needed votes.
Government representatives are perceived to and appear to limit their interactions with citizens out of fear of backlash. A confusing and lengthy complaints process, lack of information and agreement on how or with whom to connect on important issues, apathy on the part of citizens, incentive misalignment between actors due to limited accountability — primarily through elections — and the appearance of government corruption inform these perceptions. This lack of interaction and apparent complexity hinder the building of social trust on both sides of the citizen-government relationship, just as does the low information environment.
Citizen interactions with oil companies are perhaps even more fraught than they are with governments, with citizens expressing a common belief that oil companies are only looking to further their own interests. Citizens report that oil companies had taken advantage of their communities and did not sufficiently compensate them or treated them differently than other communities, highlighting how oil companies may exacerbate tensions over control of resources between adjacent groups. Although oil companies may have been aware that citizen complaints were legitimate and warranted, they often blocked processes to address and mitigate these grievances.
Assessment of opportunities
The key inputs into this low social trust environment also reveal potential entry points to align incentives, alleviate misunderstandings, and build social trust to ensure better governance with fewer opportunities for corruption. The following suggestions support the creation of an environment where oil companies, governments and citizens interact productively on issues of budgets, revenues, and services and have space to understand each other’s point of view.
- Citizens want more information to be able to effectively communicate with their representatives. Providing citizens with relevant and digestible information and disseminating it through various methods may increases the transparency of ongoing commitments and stated government actions, which may increase trust in government.
- Townhall meetings are an effective way of engaging citizens but have not traditionally served to mediate relationships between actors due to low probability of attendance from government representatives and oil companies. In their present form, they do not seem to improve social trust and more work is needed to improve the design of these if government representatives are to attend and increase transparency.
- Local government (LGA) representatives have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to citizens. They have closer ties to the local communities and citizens may increase trust in their government if they observe their LGA officials directly taking accountability actions.
- Oil companies should identify alternative means to garner community support and decrease citizen mistrust. Work must be done to ensure that resource extraction adequately compensates and informs affected community members, and includes them in decision-making.
- There is potentially strong incentive alignment to put in place sustainable relationships between actors in order to safely and efficiently extract oil, disburse appropriate revenues, and use these revenues to benefit citizens who are affected by oil extraction, but this alignment is difficult to realize in the current environment and will require cultivation.
Each of our actors has a bilateral relationship with the other two, and each of these relationships is complicated by low information and low social trust. These deficits sow frustration and misunderstanding, but also leave open opportunities for corruption and mismanagement, exacerbating strained relationships and impoverishing communities. Low social trust may be mitigated by increased information and communication, but these alone are not sufficient to put in place lasting productive relationships.
As we look toward future work, it’s apparent that the manner in which information is shared between the actors in this relationship is key to improving knowledge of the constraints and responsibilities each group faces and ensuring it is shared in a usable way. As such, we’re taking this idea forward and excited to do more research on how financial and project tracking information is presented, and how effective it is at increasing accountability in this environment of low social trust. Keep an eye out for another blog post on effective storytelling and data visualizations! We can’t wait to share it with you.
*Special thanks to BudgIT staff (Adejoke Akinbode, Uadamen Ilevbaoje, Andrew Ebigwe, Olusina Akinyemi, Segun Olaleye, Abel Akeni, Gabriel Okeowo), Adekemisola Akinyede, Damilola Iyiola, and R4D staff (Praneetha Vissapragada, Erin Fletcher, Zara Ali) for their efforts in supporting and facilitating the research.