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7 Ways Owners and Operators Can Strengthen Public Trust in Critical Infrastructure

Nearly half (46%) of Americans do not trust the federal government. Additionally, seven in 10 citizens believe the government is wasteful and lacks transparency. 

These are just a few of the eye-opening findings of a study conducted in late 2022 by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, bipartisan organization trying to transform the way government works and attract more young people to public service. 

“This lack of trust is harmful to our country’s ability to solve national problems, including protecting the country from security threats and implementing investments in infrastructure, climate resiliency and equitable economic recovery.”

Source: The State of Public Trust in Government 2023, Partnership for Public Service, May 30, 2023

While public trust in government to do the right thing has risen and fallen over the decades, Pew Research reports that public trust hasn’t risen above 30% since last peaking in 2007. 

The erosion of public trust can create a host of negative consequences, including:

Given the undeniable relationship between the government, public works, and essential services, these negative perceptions also present challenges for critical infrastructure owners and operators. But with challenge also comes opportunity. 

How to Rebuild Public Trust in Critical Infrastructure Operations and Projects

Here are some of the proactive steps that owners and operators can take to increase citizen trust in their operations and projects.

1. Ensure Reliability and Resilience

Implement robust maintenance schedules and disaster preparedness plans. Conduct regular drills to showcase the infrastructure's ability to withstand emergencies, ensuring the public that systems are reliable and resilient.

2. Engage the Community

Actively involve local communities in the decision-making process. Organize town hall meetings, solicit public feedback, and incorporate community suggestions into project planning. Demonstrating a genuine and actionable interest in addressing local concerns is foundational to building public trust.

3. Respond Promptly to Crisis Situations

Develop a crisis communications plan to ensure a swift response to service disruptions. Quick and well-coordinated communications demonstrate competence and reinforce public trust in your ability to handle unexpected situations. 

4. Address Environmental Concerns

Embrace sustainable practices and conduct thorough environmental impact assessments for all projects. Engage with environmental organizations and encourage citizen participation to demonstrate a commitment to minimizing environmental impact.

5. Maintain Compliance and Certifications

Adhere to industry regulations and standards, and obtain relevant certifications. But don’t stop there. Publicize these certifications as well to inform citizens of the steps that have been taken and assure them that infrastructure systems and services meet the necessary safety and quality benchmarks.

6. Manage Projects Efficiently and Transparently

Invest in technology tools that facilitate efficiency and transparency by providing visibility into potential issues before they become major problems. Regularly update the public on project timelines, milestones achieved, and any challenges faced. Proactive communication about project progress demonstrates transparency and accountability, as well as your commitment to serving your citizens. 

7. Strengthen Security

Conduct a thorough assessment to identify all potential security threats. Implement the necessary measures to ensure essential services and critical systems are protected against physical and cybersecurity threats. Communicate the measures taken and provide regular updates to reassure the public that you’re prioritizing security.


The Role of Critical Infrastructure Security in Building Public Trust

Essential services and functions like public transportation, healthcare, water, and electrical services are foundational to the American way of life. 

Because they have long been a part of our everyday lives, citizens expect these services to be “always on” and always available. The consistent and reliable delivery of these services doesn’t just improve the quality of citizens’ daily lives, it’s essential to their safety and security.

As a result, when these systems fail, regardless of the reasons, citizens’ lives aren’t just disrupted, their overall sense of security is as well. 

For this reason and many others, like economic stability and basic health and safety, critical infrastructure owners and operators are relied upon to ensure the uninterrupted delivery of public services and functions. This responsibility requires a thorough approach to critical infrastructure security that anticipates and proactively mitigates the risks that threaten their ability to do so. 

Cybersecurity Attacks: The Newest Threat to Critical Infrastructure—and Public Trust

Infrastructure owners and operators have always needed to be thorough and thoughtful in their approach to risk management. Traditionally, critical infrastructure security risks included primarily physical events, ranging from natural disasters to structural failures to terrorist attacks. As technology has evolved, though, the threats have gone beyond the physical. 

Digital technologies and highly interconnected systems have become the norm. These advancements have opened up a wealth of opportunities to drive improvements in service delivery and meet ever-growing consumer expectations for convenience and reliability. 

As is true of many major advancements, though, these technologies also introduce new challenges. In this case, owners and operators must now anticipate and proactively defend against new digital (aka cybersecurity) threats. 

The interconnected systems typically responsible for the delivery of essential public services are particularly vulnerable to these new cyber threats. In fact, cyber attacks against critical infrastructure are now considered one of the most significant strategic risks for the U.S. And often all it takes is one incident to create doubt and mistrust among the citizens who rely on them. 

How a Cybersecurity Breach Erodes Public Trust

Two closely timed cyber attacks against public services in 2021 illuminate the importance of cybersecurity and the havoc that a cyber breach can wreak on public trust and confidence. 

The first occurred in February 2021, when it was reported that a hacker was suspected of tampering with the drinking water processed at an Oldsmar, Florida, water treatment plant. While the scope of the incident was local, and is now thought to have been a result of human error, the Oldsmar incident nonetheless created ripples of fear and uncertainty as many other Americans realized that a similar event could happen in their communities. 

“The immediate operational objectives of cyberattacks tend to focus on manipulating data, degrading networks, or stealing funds. However, cyberattacks often have a more insidious effect: they undermine citizens’ trust.”

Source: “Cyber Conflict and the Erosion of Trust,” Council on Foreign Relations Blog, Sept. 21, 2022

This was followed by a cyber attack in May 2021 against Colonial Pipeline. While the resulting shutdown of operations was relatively brief, the incident set off a wave of negative impacts across the transportation sector and domestic petroleum supply chain, disrupting airline travel and inciting “panic at the gas pump” as Americans feared gasoline supplies would be severely limited.

These high-profile cybersecurity incidents influenced the development of several cybersecurity initiatives, including the Biden-Harris Administration’s five-pillar National Cybersecurity Strategy. Recognizing how detrimental to public trust these types of security incidents can be, the first pillar is titled “Defend Critical Infrastructure.” It stresses the need for a strong cybersecurity posture to build public trust that essential services will be reliable and resilient.

Rebuild Public Trust—and Reduce Risk—by Strengthening Critical Infrastructure Security

The rise of digital technologies is requiring critical infrastructure owners and operators to rethink how they’ve always done things. This includes reevaluating their security measures and implementing the changes needed to protect against evolving cybersecurity threats. 

Making these changes can feel like a massive undertaking. And whether you’re a fan of change or not, it always feels a little uncertain, a little risky.

But the reality is that the risks in resisting change are even greater, especially when public trust in essential public services is on the line. 

Ultimately, the choice is yours. You can resist the inevitable until you can’t resist it any longer… 

Or you can seize the opportunity to address these new challenges head on and, in doing so, reduce your risk and begin to rebuild public confidence.