Leading in Government Demands the Stewardship of Public Trust

While some aspects of leadership transcend the public and private sectors, others are unique to government — in particular, the preservation of public trust.

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As Americans, we have only one institution with the public mandate and resources to collectively address our nation’s most important and difficult challenges: the federal government. Given the multiple crises facing our nation today, the need for an effective government and capable federal leadership is clearly of paramount importance.

The Biden administration has ambitious goals concerning the coronavirus pandemic, racial inequity, the economy, the environment, and national security. Having a firm understanding of what it means to lead in government will be core to its ability to make progress against these daunting challenges. Although some aspects of leadership transcend the public and private sectors, others are unique to government. In particular, the role of public trust is both crucial and at grave risk, as has been so painfully exposed during the past few years.

Building, rebuilding, and maintaining trust in the face of extremely difficult challenges, where progress will confront resistance from all directions, requires strong leadership from both federal career executives and presidential appointees. These individuals must not only bring policy expertise but an ability to champion the public interest, lead a large workforce, ensure effective implementation of a wide range of programs and initiatives, and navigate political minefields amid constant budget uncertainties.

In our work at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, we have developed the Public Service Leadership Model to illuminate the essential attributes of effective leaders in government. In brief, such leaders bring a deep sense of stewardship of the public trust and a clear commitment to the public good. All federal leaders — both career employees and political appointees — take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution when they enter public service. Given the vast and unmatched influence, power, and resources of our government, and its far-reaching effects on the United States and the rest of the world, trust in federal leaders and their integrity is critical. These leaders represent the American people and must be held to the highest standards in their service to the public.

Crumbling Trust

Trust between the public and government is at an all-time low. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020 only 20% of U.S. adults said they trust the federal government, compared with 77% in 1964. Recent research from the

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