Community Engagement When Trust Is Low

By Elizabeth Cooper

A city government wants to build new bus shelters in a neighborhood that has suffered from neglect and limited investment over the years. The city has the best of intentions and staff are enthusiastic about an upgrade that can help redress the imbalance in public resources. Despite these good intentions, few residents attend the first public meeting to discuss the proposal, and several who do attend express skepticism and reluctance about the project. Afterward, even fewer provide feedback. The opportunity for engagement and connection around something positive for the community is not turning out as expected—why?

Successful community engagement requires a level of trust from community members: trust that their energy and scarce time won’t be wasted, trust that they’ll be heard, and trust that their needs will be prioritized and their agency respected.  

Skepticism (or outright distrust) can’t be repaired overnight, but working to build trust should be a key, early, and ongoing priority of community engagement processes in neighborhoods and communities with a history of neglect, marginalization, and underinvestment. The following practices can help:

There is no quick fix. (Re)build relational infrastructure to support communication, genuine engagement, and trust for the long haul.

Advice to go at “the speed of trust” is so common as to be cliché, but slowing down is one of the most important ways to improve engagement and relationships in low-trust contexts. The substantive conversation can’t be the beginning of the relationship, and the substance can’t be hurried. For example, with the community above, beginning a discussion by showing redesign options A, B, and C and asking participants to prioritize would not only miss the opportunity to uncover what is important to community members, it would also miss critical relationship-building steps.

To build long-term relationship infrastructure, then, it helps to slow down. Take the bus with local community leaders to get the actual feel of their daily experience. Walk the neighborhood. Talk to the community beyond the primary goal of a particular engagement. That might mean coming together to talk about how engagement with the community has gone, or how it might improve. For example, could “community liaisons” or a standing working group be established to advise on process, reach out to their networks, and give more in-depth input? Could some community members be directly hired to do outreach?  

Empower the community. 

When trust is low, look for ways to put the community in the driver’s seat as much as possible to make their participation have greater impact.

Before diving into the substantive issues, engage the community to co-create terms for the process. For example, consider together: How will we know if we’ve made good decisions together? What criteria should we use to judge the plan and the process we used to get there? Strengthening the community’s agency should be one of the main purposes of coming together, not an afterthought. Community members should have the opportunity to be directly involved in the design and scope of the process, agenda-setting, and facilitation of meetings.

Make the process transparent.  

Transparency is also critical to build trust and accountability. Community members should reasonably expect to know how the institution operates internally and what the levers for influence and decision points are. Trust can improve if they have answers to questions such as the following:

●      Who makes the decisions? After this engagement process, are city staff who work directly on the project the “deciders” of next steps, or is there another authority, e.g. elected leaders or an appointed body? 

●      What level of input and buy-in from the community will signal support to proceed? Community stakeholders should be involved in defining how local engagement will affect decisions. As a rule, in low-trust contexts, setting a high bar for buy-in and waiting for clear messages of support will help protect against rushed or misinformed decisions. 

●      What other sources of input will be considered? Are some more influential than others? 

●      What options are available for those unable to participate in traditional channels like meetings and surveys? Co-creating and clearly offering flexible participation options (such as individual calls or small-group conversations) increases and levels access.

●      What is the timeline for the process? Is it flexible? 

●      If the community members do not agree with outcomes, what would their process options be? 

Be honest, apologize for mistakes, and seek to repair. 

Trust won’t reconstitute itself as though harm and neglect never happened. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for wrongs in the past, however, helps establish a foundation for repair.

Honesty and accountability can be challenging, especially when harms seem to have accumulated over time under the momentum of a faceless agency or department. In such circumstances, it’s not always clear who could be “held responsible,” and perhaps none of the staff who currently represent the public entity held those roles at the time the harm occurred. But it’s powerful and appropriate when a representative delivering an institutional apology acknowledges that “we caused this problem.” On the other hand, deflecting responsibility onto “they” who once occupied the role, and thus failing to take institutional responsibility, erodes trust.

There are different kinds of mistakes to address, too. The harm may be rooted in a negative substantive outcome for the community, or it may be due to relational breakdowns in process. When acknowledging those mistakes, do so with clarity. Be specific.

Demonstrate trustworthiness and responsiveness with smaller accomplishments.

To rebuild trust, start early by demonstrating trustworthiness in small ways. Take the bus shelters example from above. Instead of asking about design options early on, the staff might ask open-ended questions to sound out more limited, specific problems to address. They may learn that there’s been a trash issue around bus stops, or that ineffective streetlights have caused problems. They then have an opportunity to demonstrate responsiveness by addressing these smaller issues before asking residents to take a leap of faith and delving into more substantial changes.

With these strategies, it’s possible to rebuild trust and avoid a process with inadequate engagement, as mentioned above. Imagine if that first meeting didn’t rush to address the big proposal about new bus shelters. What if, instead, there were a more iterative process, and community members had a greater role and greater clarity about the steps? What if the community heard an honest apology from the city for harms and missteps, and saw attention to smaller, swiftly manageable problems before moving on to the larger, primary objective? Taking these steps together, over time, with a long-term commitment to rebuilding relationships, can pave the way to rebuilding trust and a constructive partnership with a community.