John Howard’s 2004 election-winning “who do you trust?” argument is shaping up to be an election mantra that will be used in some form by both sides of politics in the forthcoming elections.
It’s fascinating that this could be the case given the track record of both parties in upholding trust and in keeping promises. But perhaps it should be unsurprising, given trust that citizens have in their national governments is decreasing across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development zone, including in Australia …
% of citizens who have confidence in their national governments
This is a concerning trend given that, increasingly, the effectiveness and success of a wide range of government policy is contingent on appropriate behavioural responses from the public. It is difficult for governments to get citizens to participate, to co-operate, to comply or to accept change on their part when trust is eroded.
While trust appears to be weakening, our expectations of governments and their bureaucracies seem to be rising. People seem to be demanding more of their governments even if, at the same time, they have that sinking feeling that they are going to be disappointed.“Expectations are in a state of flux …”
Journalist Laura Tingle wrote an insightful piece on this dynamic between Australians and their governments in a Quarterly Essay titled “Great Expectations” and its worth reading to explore some of the historical and cultural underpinnings of our expectations on governments. Expectations are in a state of flux as citizens and their governments across many democracies grapple with an erosion of trust on a significant scale.
The cynics amongst us would say that trust and contemporary political leadership is self-contradictory, an oxymoron. And the cynics may not be that off target. Ordinary, uninspiring political leadership always seems to be built on some degree of exhortation of trust, just look at Donald Trump’s Republican nomination campaign.
In this, such uninspiring politics can often be compared to other occupational fields such as magicians, snake oil salesmen and confidence tricksters. William Thompson, the person to which the term “con man” was first applied, operated in Manhattan in 1849. Thompson often exhorted his victims to have confidence and trust in him, only to be relieved of their valuables once they did.
There is a difference when trust is demanded rather than earned. Machiavelli wrote in 1527:
“… that it is praiseworthy for a prince to keep his word and to live with integrity, yet we see from recent experience that those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men (sic) craftily.”
For those of us who are not princes or in politics, our standards must surely be higher. As leaders in business, in the public service, in community organisations and in not for profits, we and the people we lead will surely be better served if we accept that we cannot possibly meet all the expectations, spoken and unspoken, that are placed on us. We should focus instead on building bonds of trust with people, within and across our organisations and communities.
This of course entails honesty. Honesty in our thinking, in our promises and in our actions. And all of this takes courage.
The OECD recommends six areas where governments can win back trust: reliability, responsiveness, openness, better regulation, integrity and fairness and inclusive policymaking. These six areas are also very relevant in organisational leadership and, when taken seriously and faced courageously, will do more to build and sustain trust than any mere exhortation can.