In this insightful think piece, Cllr Lorna Fielker, Deputy Leader at Southampton City Council, reflects on the value of trust in local government and how, perhaps as a sector, it is largely undervalued despite being so critical to achieving council aspirations. She ponders if it’s time to start asking some tough questions about the mistrust running through our councils, partners and communities.
Last year, research by the Association for Public Service Excellence revealed that trust in councils and councillors is higher overall compared to trust in government and ministers. Understandably, many in local government saw this as a reason to rightly celebrate the findings but is it really the victory it seems? Instead, I think what we really need to do is ask questions like:
- Why does 46% of the population not trust us to make decisions about how services are delivered?
- And 49% on making local decisions?
Perhaps the reason why we’re more focused on the comparison to central government instead of asking those critical questions is because we do not fully understand the value of trust as a resource to our councils – and how to cultivate, measure and use trust to deliver our ambitions for residents and businesses.
Measuring the value of trust is a tricky business, but at a time when every penny matters and council administrations are having to make tough decisions, trust is fundamental. For example, strong, trusting relationships with other local authorities and statutory organisations can create a climate for conversations about shared services and budgets. Within the workplace, trust in the employer is linked to improved performance as a result of staff having a positive attitude to their work. Furthermore, an eagerness to collaborate with others leads to a willingness to take risks.
Trust relationships between local government and the voluntary sector deteriorated as a consequence of the shift from grants to highly monitored commissioned services. By and large, the sector felt it was no longer trusted to decide how best to meet the needs of people based on their experience and perhaps, as a consequence, innovation has been stifled. Local government has become more reliant on the voluntary sector to step in, where we have stepped out due to budgetary pressures, so rebuilding those trust relationships is essential for everyone.
That said, trust relationships in local government are complicated.
Organisational trust and trust bestowed on individuals within the authority need to be considered separately. Organisational trust can be cultivated through:
- Transparent decision making;
- Genuine co-production and design with residents and partners;
- Doing what we say we are going to do;
- Making it easy to engage with us;
- And holding our hands up when we get it wrong.
However, there is a risk to councils when the trust relationship is a personal one related to the officer. The person or organisation bestowing the trust may not have the same degree of trust with the organisation in return. Resources accessed now because of that relationship may not be available if the officer exits the organisation. It is imperative when developing partnerships that they can continue to thrive beyond the loss of key personnel and that the personal trust relationship is utilised to foster organisational trust.
Having strong trust relationships enables us to access resources. Conversely, a loss of trust may have significant consequences for local authorities. From a political perspective, it can result in individual councillors losing their seats or a change of control. From an organisational perspective, low levels of trust increase costs, and whilst it may not prevent partnerships from forming – as there is work we must do in conjunction with the NHS, police, and others – it prevents those partnerships from being effective. The Northamptonshire Commissioners Lessons Learned Report is a stark reminder of the importance of trust. It states that destructive mistrust of, and among, partners had a role in the hubris that led to that council’s financial collapse.
Another aspect to consider when thinking about local trust is the findings from resident and staff surveys, which routinely measure satisfaction. However, whilst someone may be satisfied, they still do not necessarily trust you. An argument can be made that if they are satisfied trust does not matter. It does if we are seeking to change those services or ask people to work in a different way. Change is always hard; trust overcomes some of the barriers.
Without a doubt, there are many important lessons for local government to learn from all these findings.
Trust is therefore a valuable resource to our authorities, Edelman who has researched trust for over two decades put forward a compelling case that trust is the ultimate currency in the relationships that all institutions build with their stakeholders. As local authorities, we need to shift our thinking and start finding ways to:
- Measure levels of trust from our broad range of stakeholders.
- Identify where it is based on organisational or personal trust.
- Examine which stakeholders or situations where trust is high and low.
- Develop plans to build and maintain those relationships.
But this will only happen if we are talking about trust at every level of the organisation and start valuing it as the critical currency it is for local government.
Cllr Lorna Fielker is Deputy Leader at Southampton City Council and Cabinet Member for Adults, Housing and Health. Cllr Fielker is funded by the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership to undertake research on the impact of data protection regulations on the voluntary sector.