Surfacing the Submerged State: Operational Transparency Increases Trust in and Engagement with Government

38 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2013 Last revised: 29 Aug 2018

Ryan W. Buell

Harvard Business School

Ethan Porter

George Washington University

Michael I. Norton

Harvard Business School - Marketing Unit

Date Written: August 2018

Abstract

As trust in government reaches historic lows, frustration with government performance approaches record highs. We propose that peoples’ perceptions of government and their levels of engagement with it can be reshaped and enhanced by increasing government’s operational transparency – that is, by designing service interactions so that citizens can see the often-hidden work that government performs. Across three studies, we find that revealing the “submerged state” through operational transparency impacts citizens’ attitudes and behavior. In Study 1, viewing a five-minute computer simulation highlighting the work performed by the government of an archetypal town increased trust in government and support for government services. In Study 2, residents of Boston, Massachusetts who interacted with a website that visualized service requests (e.g., potholes and broken street lamps), and efforts by the city’s government to address them became 14% more trusting and 12% more supportive of government. Moreover, residents who additionally received transparency into the growing backlog of service requests that government was failing to fulfill were no less trusting and supportive of government than residents who received no transparency at all. Study 3 leveraged proprietary data from a mobile phone application developed by the city of Boston through which residents can submit service requests; the city’s goal was to increase engagement with the app. Users who received photos of government meeting their service requests submitted 60% more requests and in 40% more categories over the ensuing 13 months than users who did not receive such photos. These significant gains in engagement persisted for 11 months following users’ initial exposure to operational transparency, and were highest for users who previously had experienced government to be moderately effective in responding to their service requests. Taken together, our results suggest that revealing the submerged state through operational transparency can shape both attitudes and behavior – results with potential implications for a broad array of service domains where operations are hidden and levels of consumer trust and engagement are faltering.

Keywords: Government services, behavioral operations, operational transparency, trust

Suggested Citation

Buell, Ryan W. and Porter, Ethan and Norton, Michael I., Surfacing the Submerged State: Operational Transparency Increases Trust in and Engagement with Government (August 2018). Harvard Business School Marketing Unit Working Paper No. 14-034; Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 14-034. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2349801 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2349801

Ryan W. Buell

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan Hall 429
Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-496-6918 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.hbs.edu/rbuell

Ethan Porter

George Washington University ( email )

2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Michael I. Norton (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School - Marketing Unit ( email )

Soldiers Field
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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