England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Integrity, openness and fairness in building public trust


Photo Credit: marcoverch Flickr via Compfight cc

“The language of politics has been debased. It is cruel, filled with insult, sneer and personal animosities as a result of the confusion that reigns. And everyone is shouting in more extreme language from the rooftops. I think that people are bemused, frustrated and cross. No one is listening to what anyone says unless it confirms their own prejudice. . I think we are going through the worst political times in my professional lifetime and I’m not enjoying it,” so says Jonathan Dimbleby, host of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions to the Evening Standard this week.

He’s not alone. Many people feel that we are in difficult political times with little political consensus and less trust. This week we hosted a roundtable with Vuelio  and chaired by Jane Dudman from The Guardian on the topic of integrity, openness, fairness and trust. We discussed issues of trust and accountability, including the fragile state of public discourse.

Of course, this is not the first time that we’ve worried about trust in civic institutions. Trust in professional and in the organs of the state, waxes and wanes. But Jacqui McKinlay, Chief Executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, who gave introductory remarks said that during turbulent times we talk more about trust and truth. We are certainly now in turbulent times.

At the LGiU we are exploring ideas of trust in the context of local public services. We believe that because we are in straitened times, we need trust even more. Councils need to be conveners of community and that requires high levels of mutual trust. As councils are able to do less with their diminishing resources, they need to work with communities more and rely on communities to do more for themselves. Thus even if trust levels were staying the same, we would now be in deficit. However there is every indication that trust is declining.

So how can we repair the trust deficit so that councils can work more effectively with their communities?

At our recent roundtable, participants from local government, from industry and from media had a range of ideas. These included:

Principles: standing up and demonstrating that your organisation and its elected representatives are meeting those 7 Nolan Principles for Standards in Public Life.

Listening and really engaging: This isn’t always easy. You cannot satisfy everyone all the time. This is, of course, made much harder by the fact that many councils have cut back on engagement and consultation services, but the role of convening really needs this. We need the soft intelligence and being able to connect with the ‘whisper networks’ within neighbourhoods and communities of interest.

Involving:  It’s no longer about telling people what you’ll deliver and then delivering it – it’s about how you deliver things. This includes designing services including democratic services around user needs and demonstrating that you’re doing so. Of course, it’s impossible to meet everyone’s demands, so we need to be honest about where we can and where we can’t and how we’ve made decisions that necessarily have winners and losers.

Transparency: Transparency is seen as a necessary, but not sufficient condition of trust. Transparency and open data have their place, but information needs to be contextualised and accessible.

Governance: As dry as it is – all of the above require good governance and really all of this is, of course, about being trustworthy.

But some trust building requires things that are outside of our immediate control. Trust is about relationships and it’s about repeated relationships. Trust can take years to build and a moment to destroy. It can be destroyed through a service failure or a political scandal.

And yet it’s more than that – as Jonathan Dimbleby said there is something different happening with civic discourse now and it isn’t nice. A great number of societal changes have taken place. We’ve removed much regulation which used to provide a hallmark of trustworthiness (flawed though it may have sometimes been). We’ve removed filters. Providing a stage-managed image is no longer enough – we now have to be authentic – and as flawed human beings that can feel like a difficult balance to strike. Social media has provided some people with the opportunity to behave in ways we hope they wouldn’t behave in the real world and it’s created a sense of pressure on politicians and public services which reach far beyond the envelope of accountability. More people have voices, but not all of them are being heard. There is a cultural etiquette around access to power that not everyone has had the advantage of learning.

We need to respond to these changes, but not overreact. We need new styles of leadership which can inspire confidence while admitting ambiguity.

None of this is easy, but the prize to be lost is great. All societies, all human relationships, run on trust. From our drinking water and the food we eat to our democratic processes, we need to be able to trust to function well. Certainly local government needs the currency of trust more than ever as we face financial and performance risks that are greater than before. To help our member councils and the sector as a whole we have developed a trust programme to look some of these issues practically and in depth and we will shortly be publishing our first major work in the series. Register here to be kept in the loop.