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

52 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2013 Last revised: 27 Aug 2019

See all articles by Ryan W. Buell

Ryan W. Buell

Harvard Business School

Ethan Porter

George Washington University

Michael I. Norton

Harvard Business School - Marketing Unit

Date Written: August 25, 2019


Problem definition: As trust in government reaches historic lows, frustration with government performance approaches record highs. Academic/practical relevance: We propose that in co-productive settings like government services, peoples’ willingness to engage in co-production (their trust and engagement levels) can be enhanced by designing service interactions to allow them to see the often-hidden work – via increasing operational transparency – being performed in response to their engagement. Methodology and results: Across three experimental studies, conducted in the field and lab, we find that revealing the “submerged state” through operational transparency impacts citizens’ attitudes and behavior. Study 1 leveraged proprietary data from a mobile phone application developed by the City of Boston, Massachusetts, 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 38% 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 at least moderately responsive to their past requests. In Study 2, residents of Boston 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, revealing government to be less responsive, were no more nor less trusting and supportive of government than residents who received no transparency at all. Study 3 replicated findings from the first two studies, tracing out the behavioral mechanisms linking operational transparency and responsiveness to trust and willingness to engage. Operational transparency increases perceptions that the government is an effortful and trusted partner for engagement, and that one’s engagement is meaningful and worthwhile. Government responsiveness increases feelings of personal efficacy, increasing willingness to engage both directly, and indirectly through the other causal paths. Managerial implications: 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 co-productive service domains where operations are hidden and consumer trust and engagement is critical.

Keywords: government services, behavioral operations, co-production, operational transparency, trust, engagement

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 25, 2019). 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: or

Ryan W. Buell

Harvard Business School ( email )

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


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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