People need to be able to believe what they hear about a local government’s finances. They need to believe that local leaders have the community’s best interest at heart. If people are to contribute resources to the local government, they need to trust that those resources will
be transformed into something of value.
However, the public’s trust in government has eroded in recent decades. Though local government is the most trusted level of government, even it has seen trust decline from 77% of people expressing trust and confidence in 1998 to 71% in 2018. Also, we as individuals probably overestimate how trustworthy others believe us to be. A well-established psychological phenomenon called “overconfidence bias” causes us to overestimate our capabilities. For instance, one study found that 50% of business people surveyed thought they were in the top 10% of most ethical people. It is not hard to believe that we might overestimate our own trustworthiness as well. Hence, there is a good case for public finance officers to intentionally build up their own trustworthiness and that of the finance office.
To learn more about how finance officers can enhance their trustworthiness, GFOA surveyed the members of two state/provincial GFOA associations. We asked members to identify other finance officers in their state/province who they thought were particularly trustworthy. We then did face-to-face interviews with the finance officers who received the most nominations. We sought to learn the behaviors they engaged in that helped them to build trust with others.
We then organized our findings into the five elements of trustworthiness suggested by the GFOA’s Code of Ethics. The Code is focused on enhancing the trustworthiness of the local government finance office. In this paper, we will focus on what we learned about each.