Civic Trust: What’s In A Concept?

The GovLab
Data Stewards Network
6 min readFeb 29, 2024


We will only be able to improve civic trust once we know how to measure it.

A visualization of the ways to measure civic trust

BY: Stefaan Verhulst, Andrew J. Zahuranec, Oscar Romero and Kim Ochilo

Recently, there’s been a noticeable decline in trust toward institutions across different sectors of society. This is a serious issue, as evidenced by surveys including the Edelman Trust Barometer, Gallup, and Pew Research.

Diminishing trust presents substantial obstacles. It threatens to weaken the foundation of a pluralistic democracy, adversely affects public health, and hinders the collaboration needed to tackle worldwide challenges such as climate change. Trust forms the cornerstone of democratic social contracts and is crucial for maintaining the civic agreements essential for the prosperity and cohesion of communities, cities, and countries alike.

Yet to increase civic trust, we need to know what we mean by it and how to measure it, which turns out to be a challenging exercise. Toward that end, The GovLab at New York University and the New York Civic Engagement Commission joined forces to catalog and identify methodologies to quantify and understand the nuances of civic trust.

“Trust is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy,” said Sarah Sayeed, Chair and Executive Director of the Civic Engagement Commission. “It is crucial for government to re-imagine and revitalize civic engagement so that it deepens relationships and strengthens trust with communities.”

This blog delves into various strategies for developing metrics to measure civic trust, informed by our own desk research, which categorizes civic trust metrics into descriptive, diagnostic, and evaluative measures.

The Importance of Measuring Civic Trust

Measuring civic trust is essential for diagnosing the health of our civic institutions, which entails understanding the dynamics between the public and those institutions. Without clear metrics, efforts to enhance civic engagement and trust can be like navigating without a compass, lacking direction and the ability to evaluate effectiveness. One can wind up in a new location without any understanding of why or how they got there. Other reasons why it is important to develop metrics include:

  • Diagnosing Problems: By quantifying civic trust, we can identify specific areas within institutions or community relations that are failing. This diagnostic capability allows for targeted interventions rather than broad, unfocused efforts that may not address the root causes of distrust.
  • Benchmarking and Tracking Progress: Establishing baseline measurements of civic trust enables governments, organizations, and communities to benchmark their current levels of trust. Over time, these metrics can track the effectiveness of policies, programs, and initiatives designed to build or restore trust.
  • Facilitating Comparison: Metrics allow for comparisons across different jurisdictions, communities, or time periods. Understanding how civic trust varies can shed light on the impact of local governance models, community engagement strategies, and social cohesion on trust levels.
  • Informing Policy and Decision-Making: Quantitative data on civic trust can inform policymakers and civic leaders about the need for policy adjustments or new initiatives. It can help prioritize resources towards areas where trust is lowest or where small improvements could yield significant benefits.
  • Enhancing Transparency and Accountability: By making metrics of civic trust publicly available, institutions can enhance their transparency, showing a commitment to accountability and continuous improvement. This openness can, in itself, contribute to building trust.

Developing Metrics for Civic Trust

To construct meaningful metrics, it’s essential to consider various dimensions of civic trust, including descriptive, diagnostic, and evaluative measures.

This categorization was the result of research conducted by The GovLab that included an extensive review of existing literature on civic trust, examining how experts explained, measured, and studied the issue, the ways officials in government and civil society have sought to cultivate civic trust, and the various components that appeared frequently in conference programs, academic journals, books, and other scholarly publications. The result of this research, a topic map, was subsequently reviewed and validated by the New York City Civic Engagement Commission and their partners, ensuring that the description of “civic trust” matched their own understanding.

While these categories are not comprehensive and do not represent the totality of decades of research, they do offer a series of possible leads that might be deepened and expanded with the input of experts and constituencies across New York.

Descriptive Metrics: Understanding the Current State of Civic Trust

Descriptive metrics serve as the starting point for assessing the current state of civic trust, focusing on measuring baseline indicators of, for instance, the confidence that individuals have in the institutions, systems, and processes that govern their lives.

These metrics encompass:

  • Institutional Trust: This involves, for instance, evaluating public attitudes towards key institutions such as government bodies, political parties, media, academia, the criminal justice system, businesses, and labor organizations. It seeks to measure how much faith people have in these entities to make decisions that impact their lives and communities.
  • Responsiveness and Fairness: Assessing the perceived effectiveness of institutions in addressing public needs and ensuring equitable treatment without discrimination is crucial. This includes evaluating the accountability of institutions and their officials, and the legitimacy with which they are viewed by the public.
  • Procedural Trust: This metric looks at the trust placed in the processes and structures designed to achieve specific outcomes, such as electoral systems or judicial proceedings, ensuring they function effectively and justly.

Diagnostic Metrics: Identifying Drivers of Civic Trust

Diagnostic metrics aim to uncover the underlying factors influencing the current state of civic trust, offering insights into both individual and societal characteristics, as well as institutional operations:

  • Individual and Societal Characteristics: These metrics examine aspects such as interpersonal trust, economic well-being, societal polarization, and risk perception. They seek to understand how personal experiences and societal dynamics influence trust in civic institutions.
  • Institutional Operations: Evaluating how institutions function, including the reliability and competence of public services and the openness and transparency of institutional processes, provides insights into the operational drivers of trust or distrust.

Evaluative Metrics: Measuring the Impact of Civic Trust

Evaluative metrics focus on the outcomes and behaviors that stem from varying levels of civic trust, reflecting how civic trust impacts individual and collective engagement with civic systems:

  • Social and Political Participation: This includes measuring the extent to which individuals engage with their community and political processes. High levels of institutional trust are often correlated with increased participation in official channels like elections, whereas low trust may lead to greater reliance on non-institutional forms of expression such as protests.
  • Community Integration: Assessing the degree to which individuals are integrated into their communities through personal ties and how they adhere to community norms and rules offers a perspective on the social dimensions of civic trust.

Adopting a Participatory Approach toward Validating and Refining the Framework

Adopting a framework to measure civic trust is not without its challenges. Key considerations include ensuring the inclusivity and representativeness of the metrics, the adaptability of the framework to different contexts, and the methodologies used to gather and interpret data. Engaging with a broad spectrum of stakeholders from various sectors and communities is essential to refining and validating the proposed metrics, ensuring they accurately capture the multifaceted nature of civic trust. Over the next few weeks, we will hold several meetings with New York City government, community representatives, and experts to understand how we might improve this current framework.

In all this work, our goal remains to help New York City more meaningfully improve trust and how it engages with residents throughout all five boroughs.


Developing robust metrics to measure civic trust is complex but crucial to addressing the trust deficit facing institutions today. By categorizing possible metrics into descriptive, diagnostic, and evaluative measures, the proposed framework offers a comprehensive approach to understanding and enhancing civic trust. As this framework is refined and implemented, it seeks to provide actionable insights for policymakers, civic leaders, and communities to rebuild trust and strengthen the fabric of our democratic societies.



The GovLab
Data Stewards Network

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