A couple of weeks ago James Turner and I attended a workshop in Paris on the subject of trust in government. Our hosts, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), had titled the event “Joint Learning for an OECD Trust Strategy” and invited a global mix of individuals from the private, public and third sectors to participate.
The OECD, created to administer the rebuilding of Europe in the post-WWII era of the Marshall Plan, has a prestigious heritage. Today it remains an inter-governmental organisation helping to tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalised economy. Its work often shapes international policy among its 34 member states and is readily referred to by a host of academic and corporate institutions.
Rather than concentrate on the key findings of the day – which will undoubtedly be covered by the organisation itself – I thought I would explore three specific statements made over the course of the day. Each I found interesting in its own right.
1. “Those who know who to trust in life are more successful.”
This is one of those statements that seems obvious when you talk it through, but it is not something you are likely to otherwise think about.
Let us take two characters.
The first, Mark, is an ambitious and genuine individual. He is prepared to put in the hard work to get to the top and he is the type that will take you with him.
The second, Chris, is similarly ambitious. But Chris’ ambition is self-serving. Chris is only interested in his own career path and will happily leave you by the side of the road if it suits him.
People do not (unfortunately) walk around with a two-line synopsis of their character on their forehead. Those of us that can distinguish the subtle differences between the real world versions of Mark and Chris are more likely to go further in life. Knowing who to trust or not puts you in the company of those who will benefit you and helps you avoid those individuals who will be damaging.
2) “Loneliness is a key driver for a lack of trust.”
Data shown to the workshop proved an already proven point: well-educated, employed people tend to have higher levels of trust. We know from looking at our Informed Public vs. General Public samples that this is the case; Informed Publics are more likely to understand the issues facing government, so they are less likely to mistrust it for its remedial actions.
But this data had an interesting addition. It showed that across age groups, social classes and geographies, those who feel lonely are less likely to trust. Perhaps this feeling of isolation generates a sense of unfamiliarity with society, and as our recent Emerging Markets Supplement hypothesizes, familiarity is an important element to developing trust.
3) “If a distrusted government says A is not true, A is true.”
One thing that we as communications people are perennially aware of is that the perception of reality is equally as important as the reality itself. Or perhaps, with a nod to “The Matrix,” reality is only what we perceive it to be.
If our client has the best product, the most generous CSR policy and treats its employees like royalty – all important for improving trust – it will make no positive impact on their reputation unless a) people know about it, and b) people believe it.
This is the same for government.
We know that if a government does not act with integrity and engage honestly with the public then it is likely to be distrusted.
Conversely, if a government does act with integrity and engage honestly then it is setting a good foundation for building trust.
But it must communicate this too.
The risk of failing to build trust is too high: should a distrusted government say A is not true, A will be perceived to be true. Irrelevant of whether the statement is true or false, the “Distruster” and the “Truster” will each take the same government statement and run with wildly different interpretations of it.
The Distruster: The government says we don’t have an issue with public debt. We must therefore have an issue with public debt.
The Truster: The government says we don’t have an issue with public debt. Look at all these conspiracy theorists saying it’s not true.
Ergo, trust in government is important.
To bring this post to a close, it will be interesting to see how the OECD builds on the workshop to develop its strategy and organisational opinion on trust in government. Ultimately the advice we provide to our clients is similarly applicable to government (with a few tweaks); it is, after all, all about building a brand with a solid reputation – and that doesn’t change whether you are private, public or third sector.
A government with a poor reputation is unlikely to stay in power for very long and if you are not in power, what is the point of being in politics?
Tom Hashemi is a research executive on Edelman Berland’s London team.