The role and importance of trust in all your engagement efforts cannot be under-estimated or under-valued. Without a purposeful and consistent effort to foster trust and build strong relationships at every step of the way, even the best-designed and thoughtful engagement processes will almost certainly either fail or fall far short of the success you seek to achieve.

While there are a number of keys to building trust within any group, it's important to realize that this ethos should permeate every aspect of your engagement program.

The challenge of course is that we have entered an era of declining trust (though to varying degrees) in government and institutions of all types and across most nations. As has been widely documented, this poses serious challenges to those of us seeking to engage communities in an effective discussion, decision-making and participation processes.

Several drivers contribute to this decline in trust - many of which highlight issues that an effective engagement process should be designed to anticipate and/or address. These include:

  • Perceptions of bias of those convening or facilitating the process or in the information available
  • Limited engagement with, or understanding of the processes and expectations of engagement
  • Political polarization and the reliance on 'proxy attributes' guiding pre-conceived perceptions
  • Persistence of wicked issues
  • Increased distance between professionals and citizens as governance processes and activities become increasingly specialized and complex (Adapted from Matthews, 2008).

The Keys to Building Trust

Several key imperatives are found throughout the substantial trust literature. Each of these can be enhanced - or conversely undermined - in a number of implicit and explicit ways. They include:

  • Effective communication. This includes before, throughout, and following your formal engagement efforts. If pursued effectively, the more citizens and communities understand the process, your goals and intended outcomes, the information they need to make an informed decision, the perspectives of each other, and their role(s) and stake in the process and issue, the more trust your engagement efforts will engender and be able to build from in the long-run.
  • Respect. While this sounds obvious, it is absolutely essential that the tone, content, and facilitation of your engagement efforts genuinely respects the input of all participants or members - even if it's sometimes difficult.
  • Transparency of processes. Your entire engagement efforts should be clear and well-understood by all stakeholders, devoid of 'hidden' or alternative agendas (personal, political, or informational), and honest about the role and influence citizens will have in the either the decision-making or implementation of solutions. Many community engagement efforts have failed in this regard.
  • Sharing information widely. Effective engagement and trust requires that everyone involved is working from a common understanding of the issue and each other's perspectives as possible. If participants or residents feel that information is only shared with some members or does not do justice to all perspectives on an issue, you are very unlikely to be able to create the trust you need for effective or sustainable engagement.
  • Engaging stakeholders in meaningful ways. Although closely related to respect, stakeholders will show greater trust in the engagement efforts that account for their perspectives, view their contributions, and employ their skills in a manner that they feel is consistent with their perspectives of these attributes.

In developing your strategies and tools to enhance trust, Stephen M.R. Covey (2006) has identified 'five waves of trust' that are worth considering. A brief summary highlights:


The Principle of Credibility. In its simplest form: "do you trust yourself and are you someone that others can trust?" It is critical that you can honestly answer 'yes' to both these questions.

Relationship Trust.

This is all about consistent behavior in all your relationships with others. People judge us on our behavior not our intentions.

Organizational Trust.

The principle here is alignment - in essence does your organization structures, policies, and systems engender the trust you want to achieve?

Market Trust.

This refers to your organization's overall reputation - a trust that can be built or destroyed at incredible speed.

Societal Trust.

This is based on the principle of contribution - do stakeholders see your organization or entity as having a past record of accomplishment and contribution to the things they care about?


Matthews, David. "Connections 2008: Focus on Communities." Kettering Foundation, 2008. Covey, Stephen M.R. "The Speed of trust: the one thing that changes everything." Simon and Schuster, 2006.

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