Last week, for the twentieth year in a row, PR giant Edelman launched its Trust Barometer. The annual survey assesses global public trust in the four institutions that are pillars of modern life: Government, Business, the Media, and Non-Governmental Organisations (third sector, etc.). For PR professionals, it’s filled with fascinating insights into public perception of the industries in which they operate. 

For the entrepreneurs that form the fast-growing GovTech sector – built on the prospect of unexplored opportunities for small startups in the private sector seeking partnerships with Government and other public-sector actors – it’s an opportunity to think about how the world perceives your offering – and the trust barriers you’ll need to overcome to successfully market your solution.

What are the main takeaways for GovTech startups?

1. Tech startups may be among the most trusted entities – now is the time to capitalise

Across the 26 markets surveyed, public trust in business generally was stronger than in national government, the United Nations and the media, and matched the trust placed in NGOs. 

Business’s greatest strength is perceived to be its ability to ‘generate value for owners’ – no surprise there, perhaps. Second and third placed strengths, however, have more positive connotations: ‘to be an engine of innovation’ and to ‘drive economic prosperity.’ 

In perceptions of honesty and fairness, too, business comes out surprisingly well. Here, public perception does remain both low generally (38%), but is static against last year’s survey; but when ranked against other institutions – business is still in second place (joint with media) – and 5 points higher than Government. The 38% figure was matched by those who believe that business is ‘corrupt and biased’; compared with the 52% who perceived governments in this negative light, business should only take comfort from these results.

Encouragingly for startups, businesses that are ‘family-owned’ or ‘privately-owned’ have earned greater public than public companies – or those that are state-owned. SMEs are therefore in an exciting position to secure partnerships that might be required to pass tests related to the public interest. 

Finally,  Edelman took a look at ‘Business’ in more detail, splitting the results across verticals including automotive, energy, food & bev, financial services and entertainment. As things stand today, ‘technology’ still sits comfortably in first position. 

2. But trust in technology is declining…

Despite that pole position, trust in technology has seen a decline over the past eight years.

Why? Because many of those surveyed believe that the pace of change brought around by technology is a concern, and that technology is out of control (61%). 

It is perhaps paradoxical to claim that tech startups are more worthy of trust than other businesses, but that new technology itself is not. Perhaps this is symptomatic of greater problems for society and the faith that citizens have in their institutions more generally. Either way, entrepreneurs will need to understand that the public are concerned about the technologies they are actually bringing to market. 

From a public relations and strategy perspective this will require openness, transparency and patience to win over hearts and minds. Those with a product to sell will need to take the time to explain what that product is and what benefits it may have for society – not just the benefits it may have for those stumping up the cash. Investing in good marketing and making sure that your messaging is clear will be essential factors to countering this decline. 

3. Government is perceived to be neither competent, nor ethical.

It is particularly telling that just as many people who believe that technological change is out of control also believe that government simply does not understand emerging technologies well enough to regulate them. 

But this perception runs deeper than simple technology – at the core of the survey is a shocking indictment of trust in the public sector, with an overwhelming perception that government lacks both competence and ethics. 

For startups, this is both a challenge and an opportunity: many entrepreneurs with technology boasting applications both private and public will no doubt have to consider whether or not to expend resources on selling to government. 

On the other hand, it is clear that the public sector is in major need of competent professionals who can drive change. At the interface of government and the private sector, GovTech startups may be perfectly positioned to effect that change. 

4. CEOs and entrepreneurs need to lead, and in doing so be careful not to damage the trust in their businesses…

The survey offers a lesson for those in leadership positions – public trust in your role is at best middling. In 2020, trust in CEOs and successful entrepreneurs stood at 47% (For CEOs, this was static vs 2019, for successful entrepreneurs, it represented a 5 point decline).

Your role gives you a responsibility – the trust barometer shows that unquestionably, you have a leadership role that goes beyond process and product. You are expected to drive change internally, but also externally. 74% of those surveyed felt that CEOs should take the lead, rather than waiting for Government to effect change (a 9% increase on the 2018 survey.)

Employees felt that it was the CEOs role to speak out on issues relating to the impact of automation on jobs, the ethical use of technology, diversity, climate change, and immigration. 

This presents an opportunity for GovTech entrepreneurs, whose growing links to Government and understanding of new technologies puts them in a unique place from which to contribute. It will be essential to speak out on the issues that matter and leverage the trust your company holds for good. 

5. We all need to learn how to work together better. 

The spanner in the works for GovTech is public faith in the capacity of institutions to work together. Simply put, while business, media, government and NGOs are each perceived as having their own strengths, there is little belief among those surveyed that any one can effectively partner with another to realise progress that might benefit society. 

It is not as if the appetite for partnership isn’t there either – the model used anticipates the increase in overall trust in each institution as being significant should each learn how to work with one another. 

For Government outsourcing, this means – along with overcoming the negative perceptions of its competence and ethics – it must find ways to understand the technologies it is buying better and make sure that it procures technology that drives efficiency and improvements. 

For startups – this means learning how to position yourself in the market, learning how to identify the best routes to deal-making with officials – whether through your own networks or by seeking help from experts like the GovStart team at PUBLIC – and then, being absolutely certain that you understand the challenges government is facing. Only then will you be able to effectively partner with the public-sector. 

What does the Trust Barometer tell me about how I position myself and my brand?

Trust is essential. Business partners need to be certain that a degree of trust exists before signing on the dotted line. In B2B deals, trust needs to exist between investors and owners, shareholders and executives, and often between firms and regulators.  

In public-sector deals, that trust extends to include citizens and the media, who need to be confident that the businesses taking a fundamental role in their everyday lives can be trusted to deliver at a level that is both competent and ethical. 

In this respect, the barometer indicates that startups may already have an advantage in this regard, but those in charge will need to take heed of the barriers they face: declining trust in technology, a requirement for leaders to speak out on the issues that matter, and the challenge of effectively partnering with institutions with their own problems. 

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