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Restoring public trust via electronic government systems

10 May 2012

Electronic government systems can be structured to restore trust in citizen-government relationships. FEB-researchers Eric Lim and Chee-Wee Tan developed a model that yields both developmental prescriptions and technological specifications for realizing trust-building strategies via electronic government systems.

Change of mindset

Chee-Wee Tan
Chee-Wee Tan

Tan: ‘While our framework offers detailed guidelines for designing e-government systems to foster trust between citizens and governments, the most important thing has to start from a change of mindset. That is the core message of our paper. Governments must demonstrate trust in citizens and in return, citizens tend to reciprocate by exhibiting a greater degree of compliance with governmental regulations. Our study reveals that citizens, who felt trusted by their governments, strive to live up to those expectations. Therefore, governments have to ask themselves this question: is it really worthwhile to inconvenience most citizens just to prevent a handful of errant behaviors?’

Together with three colleagues, Lim and Tan wrote the article Advancing public trust relationships in electronic government: The Singapore e-filing journey, which appeared in the top journal Information Systems Research. They analyzed the success of Singapore’s electronic tax-filing system.

Spectacular reaction

Sometimes, the most innocuous action can spark the most spectacular reaction. ‘The Singapore national tax agency is compelled torethink their strategy for processing tax returns simply because it ran out of space. In the past, tax returns are filed in paper format and the agency kept storing these returns in file cabinets until, despite having one of the largest buildings within the civil service, there just isn’t enough room anymore. The agency also ran into labor shortage, leading to rising costs in tax collection’, says Lim.

Eric Lim
Eric Lim

‘The board members of the agency began to question: if 80 percent of taxpayers are good, honest folks, why are they being forced to complete all these forms? Why should taxpayers have to supply all kinds of evidence as proof of their income levels and expenditures when filing taxes? 80 percent of tax returns are just for record and archival purposes with the remaining 20 percent belonging to complicated or suspicious income situations which require additional verification by specialized taxation experts.’

Tan: ‘The idea was to reduce the costs of unnecessary checks. However, the starting point in this case has to be a fundamental change of mindset. The agency really wanted to show that it trusts the taxpayers. Ultimately, this trust is what gave birth to an electronic tax filing system that processes tax return expeditiously for 80 percent of normal taxpayers and the agency is only alerted to the other 20% of taxpayers with abnormal income situations.’

Honest people

‘If we look at the general manner in which governments function, they tend to assume the worst of citizens’, says Tan. ‘That is why they enact all sorts of legislation and procedures to regulate the behavior of citizens. In trying to catch a minority of dishonest people, governments incur massive costs for themselves and for citizens. Conversely, if governments were to assume that most citizens are inherently honest, cost savings from excessive deterrence or vigilance mechanisms could be channeled to streamline governmental transactions and add value to citizens in terms of a rewarding service experience.’

Citizens’ perspective

Tan: ‘If you look from citizens’ perspective: it is logical to expect them to feel a sense of distrust when governments insist on checking everything. It would appear as though governments don’t even believe in the honesty of their own citizens. This is in sharp contrast to commercial companies like that behave in a totally different way when interacting with customers. If you were to shop at, you are likely to catch the signal that the company trusts you. If you report that something you purchased is defective, will respond by sending you a replacement product for free without you ever having to return the defective one. This level of trust is noticeably missing in governments’ interactions with citizens.’

Feeding a squirrel

Of course, the process of restoring trust between citizens and governments takes time. ‘In the case of Singapore’s national tax agency, this process started at a point where distrust between government and citizens was at an all-time high’, says Lim. ‘It is clear you can’t just change that overnight. Governments have to demonstrate that they are trying to do a better job. Governments have to show that they are truly making a genuine effort to improve the lives of citizens and not merely imposing another layer of bureaucracy on them. The Singapore tax agency had a bad reputation to start with, therefore they started with communicating little changes that serve as important signals representative of the changed mindset. Getting disenchanted citizens to trust the government is like feeding a squirrel. You don’t want to make big movements to scare it.’

Deepening relationships

Tan: ‘Essentially, our framework describes incremental steps governmental institutions can take, but to be successful governments have to change their mentality about how they view themselves as well as how they view their citizens. Once that happens, our framework can then guide governmental institutions in cultivating trusting relationships with citizens and in taking concrete actions to redesign their information system architecture for deepening such relationships.’

More information

Link to full article

Contact: E. Lim or Dr C.W. Tan

Last modified:04 July 2014 9.32 p.m.

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