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Rebuilding Municipal Trust Amid Community Challenges and Misinformation

By Kate Graham and Jeff Fielding

“By a show of hands, how many of you feel the relationship you have with residents in your community has fundamentally changed in the last few years?” This question, asked to a packed room at the SUMA 2023 Convention in Saskatoon opened the conference session on building public trust in local government.

Almost every hand in the room went up.

The challenges of the past few years are well known: a global pandemic, causing major disruption in every community and household; rapid inflation, adding major financial pressures to governments, businesses and families alike; escalating mental health and addictions struggles; significant demographic and migration shifts, compounded by a housing crisis; and political polarization.

What has all of this meant for communities in Saskatchewan, and across Canada? Dr. Kate Graham, a Senior Advisor at Colliers Project Leaders, highlighted a few data trends suggesting that the relationship between local government and the communities they serve is changing: from declines in voter turnout and number of candidates seeking elected office at the local level, to broader declines in public trust in government in democracies around the world. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer studies show trust in decline, including a two-point drop in Canada over the past year. The combination of high public expectations and low public trust makes leading local communities more challenging — and, more important.

Jeff Fielding, a Senior Advisor at Colliers Project Leaders, drew on his 40 years of public service experience in describing the fundamentals of how local leaders can build trust in the way they lead. Personal character and having the courage to lead particularly in difficult circumstances, emerged as important ingredients. Jeff spoke about his early career reading meters in the City of Kitchener, quickly learning that small interactions with residents were important moments for establishing trust and building a relationship between citizens and elected officials – a lesson which proved valuable even in his later leadership roles as a City Manager in some of Canada’s largest cities. Each interaction is an opportunity to build trust, familiarity and understanding with residents.

Tim Reid, President and CEO of REAL, said “it’s a new world” and pointed to changes in how people consume information, with the average Canadian now spending more than six hours per day on the internet and more than two hours per day on social media. He reflected on recent learnings in the wake of the Experience Regina campaign, and the important opportunities that emerged from this situation to reconnect as a team. When faced with a challenge, leaders need to navigate the situation while also ensuring that they support the people around them.

Keith Comstock, Executive-In-Residence at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, spoke about specific things local governments can do to build the confidence of those they serve. Strong local governance, including constructive debate on Council followed by a “united voice” after decisions have been made, can build trust over time. He drew on his experience as a former ADM in the Saskatchewan Government to share specific things he did or observed as a public sector leader to foster collegial dynamics. One example was rotating the role of ‘devil’s advocate’ in meetings as a way to foster diversity of thinking, build comfort with different perspectives, and have each person share the load of offering divergent opinions.

SUMA participants shared their own observations and experiences, from difficult situations to inspiring innovations. One councillor shared her story of moving to her community as a pregnant single woman with no idea how to get involved. She connected with a local elected official, and then began to volunteer and get more active in community events – and now she’s an elected official! The councillor spoke about the importance of diversity, and intentionally seeking out those who are underrepresented or traditionally disengaged from politics, as important steps to rebuild engagement and trust. This message was met with enthusiastic applause throughout the crowd.

Rebuilding public trust in government begins with keeping a watchful eye on how communities are changing. Strong leadership, transparency and accountability in local government, and meaningful public engagement are all opportunities to build trust among residents. We also need to proudly celebrate the vitally important work that local governments do in their communities. Even through what has been a challenging time, in Jeff Fielding’s words, “water still came out of the tap.” Local governments provide services and infrastructure that improve residents’ quality of life, and the drive to learn from one another and continuously improve is what SUMA and many other municipal communities across Canada are all about.