By Colin Murphy, Senior Writer
On a recent research visit to Barranquilla, Colombia, inaugural Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellow Terrance Smith connected with city leaders to examine the role of trust-building on decision-making and tangible outcomes in the coastal Caribbean city of 1.2 million residents.
“Governments earn trustworthiness through demonstrating ability, humanity, and integrity,” says Smith. “Can they do what they say they’re going to do? Are they showing they care? Will they do what they say they’re going to do and be caring even when no one is looking? These three components must all be present for an organization to truly develop trustworthiness. Once trustworthiness is established, opportunities for innovating and improving peoples’ lives expand.”
In this Innovation Conversation, Smith unpacks learnings from Barranquilla, where over 15 years the government-to-resident relationship transformed as a response to intentional commitments to trust-building, delivery, and collaborative co-creation of public spaces.
From public health and safety to the city’s ambitious Todos al Parque (Everyone to the Park) project that has generated 1.9 million square meters of green space to ensure 93 percent of the city’s residents live within an 8-minute walk of a public park – Barranquilla serves as an active example of the impact of trust and trust-building.
Here are highlights from our recent Innovation Conversation:
Barranquilla is such an interesting city for your research, because residents had very low levels of trust in their government, as critical needs went unmet and components of basic infrastructure went unprovided. In 2008 the government recognized this and set out to deliberately build trustworthiness. How does a government go about establishing trustworthiness when operating in a low-trust environment?
In environments with low levels of trust, what I’ve seen is that we have very little participation or voluntary compliance, and these are components you need to have a functioning democracy. There’s also no risk-taking and no vulnerability, and these are components you need to drive innovation.
Building trust has to start with ability. For governments, that means the ability to do what you say you’re going to do. In Barranquilla, residents had very low levels of trust that their government could deliver, because the city lacked adequate drainage, and many of their roads were underwater when it rained. People couldn’t go outside safely in times of heavy rain – they literally were swept away on the city’s streets, which became raging rivers. As you can imagine, this negatively impacted trust. When residents had to live with that, in their minds, the government didn’t care about them, their needs, their safety, their well-being. So they rebelled, and they stopped paying taxes – they stopped voluntarily complying.
The city knew it needed to demonstrate the ability to fix the streets. Without tax revenue they needed, they had to get funding from other sources, like the national government and the Inter-American Development Bank, which they were able to do. They also knew they couldn’t squander it. Through a project called Barrios a la Obra (Neighborhoods at Work), the city began to tackle the infrastructure issues such as the roads. They knew they had to pave the roads – but they had to listen first. They addressed skepticism by actively listening to the needs of people and valuing their lived experiences. Residents were so eager to have the roads paved that in some instances they joined in the physical work of paving with support from the city.
Lots of governments run into the issue of, ‘We realize that people say we’re not delivering, so we have to go out and deliver, because they don’t trust us.’ So a local government will go out and start delivering on things that people didn’t ask for or that they didn’t want, and it diminishes the trust even further. Because Barranquilla’s leaders listened to residents, they were able to pave roads and give residents what they needed most.
Paving the roads acknowledged the past harms of having unpaved roads, showed the government could deliver, and demonstrated that they cared and were committed to rebuilding trust. It demonstrated ability. The city built up from that delivery win.
People were more inclined to pay taxes to a government that delivers for them, but it didn’t happen all at once. Some people were paying, but some weren’t. The city transparently showed that no one was exempt from paying taxes, with the finance officer even going so far as freezing the bank account of the mayor, who had some outstanding payments. It was known and shown that everyone had to pay taxes, and the people started paying their taxes. When folks started paying taxes at higher rates, the city’s debt-to-revenue ratio went from debt being more than 200 percent of revenue in 2007 to revenue being 35 percent of debt by 2019. This is one of the rare instances where the increase in trust is displayed as a quantitative metric. As trust increased, so did voluntary compliance to pay taxes; trust is good for business in the public sector.
Now, all sorts of possibilities open up. As you gain more trust, people are collaborating and voluntarily complying more, and it makes it cheaper and easier to operate. So the city was determined to keep the momentum going.
How did they keep the momentum going?
They committed to an intentional, particularistic, and pluralistic form of civic engagement by devoting attention to the specific desires of different groups of people with different needs.
What does that look like? In all the cities where I’ve made research visits – Barranquilla; Mobile, Alabama, USA; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; and Vanta, Finland – you see that the government isn’t one-size-fits-all. In my research and presentations I speak about how the word “the” is one of the most dangerous parts of innovation work, as in “the” government. It suggests the government is a monolith that’s single-mindedly moving towards one goal, and we know that’s not the truth. Government is a network of departments that work together to deliver public value. The same applies to “the” community. When a government looks up and says, ‘We spoke to “the” community and this is what they want,’ it suggests people are all thinking single-mindedly, and that couldn’t be more wrong.
In Barranquilla, they operate with a level of very intentional engagement. When they go out to the neighborhoods in their Así vivo mi barrio (This is How I Live My Neighborhood) program, they meet in each neighborhood to understand the needs of those communities. They have dedicated time and space for public opinion, discussion, and collective construction around neighborhood scale.
All the communities wanted parks and green spaces. Barranquilla started an ambitious project to build parks all throughout the city – Todos al Parque. Over the length of the project, the city has built 48 new parks, regenerated 202 parks, and planted 4,300 trees. Ninety-three percent of all households are within an 8-minute walk of green spaces, and there’s more than 1.9 million square meters of public green space.
But it wasn’t as easy as just building parks. The city had to listen to residents first – before they started building.
All the parks are built to the same specs – which accounts for equity from neighborhood to neighborhood – but each park has different elements based on the needs of that community. Many of the parks have soccer fields, for example, but one of the communities I visited was a neighborhood that had mostly women with children, and their park has a roller skating rink because the women in the neighborhoods said that was what they wanted.
So, if cities approach projects with a one-size-fits-all mindset, there’s a risk of undermining the trust-building efforts. This happens when we aren’t particularistic and pluralistic – when we don’t tailor our approach to the diverse and specific needs of the people seeking services.
It builds momentum. Because if you are particularistic and pluralistic, then it shows the community that you care specifically about them in a way that’s different from this other community, because they’re very different groups of people. That word travels. You’re not only building trust in that area. They become your trusted messengers, and they spread the word to the next group about how you listened and how you delivered, and that sets a higher level of expectation for the next community that you go into. It becomes easier to deliver the higher you go, because the word has traveled that you are capable, and you have a track record of delivering at high levels.
That sounds like a good success story, like they climbed a mountaintop, and now the project is complete – but we know the work of delivering public value and public trust is never finished. How did Barranquilla deliberately architect a sustained movement of innovation and an environment of trustworthiness across political/mayoral administrations?
That has been a concern in most of the cities I’ve visited: how do you sustain trust that’s been built in one administration and carry it over to the next? In Barranquilla, they have mastered the art of delivering in functional units. The city’s culture of trustworthiness spans four administrations over 15 years since 2008, and it’s going into a fifth administration. Mayors are term-limited for three years – so it means that they have three years to deliver on their campaign promises. So you can’t go in as the new mayor and say, ‘I’m going to build the Gran Malecon (Great Boardwalk), and in three years it’s going to be great.’ No. Instead, they focus on delivering self-contained segments of infrastructure – what they call functional units – that can operate both individually and collaboratively with the next piece that’s going to come.
Because trust levels are high, in a three-year term they can perform stakeholder engagement, complete the design phase, start construction, and they can cut the ribbon on that functional unit within that time frame. This gives the rest of the community lots of confidence in the delivery of the next functional unit, and it opens up the door for another round of stakeholder engagement – ‘What are we missing from this park? What could we do better?’ So now they’re able to be responsive to the needs of people who say, ‘Well, you know what? We wish we would have had a restaurant in the park, or places for kids to play basketball.’ Now the engagement starts around that and the next unit, and you can start to build this next unit.
But it also changes the culture. Now, it’s about intense engagement. It is built around listening. It is built around understanding. It’s built on being in close proximity with the people and gathering their information in order to deliver what they need. Every subsequent mayor, they’re buying into that system to continue that movement, because that’s the only way they’re going to be able to deliver effectively and maintain the level of trust that is needed. Because they now understand the importance of trust and its complexity as a dynamic force to be managed. They realize now how much they need that trust.
Trust and trustworthiness are not just prerequisites for innovation; they are the foundation upon which groundbreaking ideas, collaboration, and progress thrive. They are not merely nice-to-haves but necessities for a future built on collective success, shared values, voluntary compliance, and enduring partnerships.