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

42 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2013 Last revised: 6 Feb 2020

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: January 26, 2020


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, people’s 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: Three studies, conducted in the field and lab, show that surfacing 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 submit service requests; the city’s goal was to increase engagement with the app. Users who received photos of government addressing their service requests submitted 60% more requests and in 38% more categories over the ensuing 13 months than users who did not receive photos. These significant increases in engagement persisted for 11 months following users’ initial exposure to operational transparency, and were highest for users who had experienced government to be at least moderately responsive to their requests in the past. In Study 2, residents of Boston who interacted with a website that visualized both service requests (e.g., potholes and broken street lamps) and efforts by the city’s government to address those requests became 14% more trusting and 12% more supportive of government. Moreover, residents who received additional 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. Study 3 replicated findings from the first two studies and documented underlying mechanisms: operational transparency increases trust and engagement by two causal pathways – through consumers’ increased perceptions of effort by the government and through increased perceptions that engaging with it is impactful. Responsiveness increases feelings of personal efficacy, which boosts willingness to engage both directly and indirectly through the other causal paths. Managerial implications: Taken together, our results suggest that showing more work performed by government – via operational transparency – encourages people to do more work themselves, results with implications for the design of a broad array of co-productive services 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 (January 26, 2020). 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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