How have societies rebuilt trust in their leaders? Your ideas please!

What can we learn from history about how to rebuild the trust between political leaders and citizens that seems to have evaporated in recent years?

This was the topic of a recent exchange with Paddy Radcliffe. Paddy has launched a project to ‘build trustworthiness and trust in and between our public leaders, institutions and citizens’ in the UK. The campaign involves developing a set of principles that leaders can sign up to, backed up by public scrutiny over whether they then follow them. Seems rather quixotic/over-optimistic given the current state of politics, so my first question was ‘where has this happened before?’

I ask this question a lot. Activists often think about influencing, reform and change in a bit of a historical vacuum, whereas looking for antecedents can be useful – either you find them, and can learn something from them, or you are forced to ask yourself some tough questions about why your proposed great idea has never previously occurred in the whole of human history.

So as usual, I took to twitter in search of answers, and got some really interesting replies. Among the more relevant:

Alan Hirsch: ‘Trust was lost in late 19th century USA due to corruption and abuse of power in the public and private sectors and populism blossomed, but first progressivism and then the New Deal rebuilt trust.’

Diana Cammack: ‘Not regaining trust exactly, but I find it interesting that Boomers who hated the Establishment and distrusted intel-community (Vietnam, 1960s etc) now assuming they (FBI, CIA, spies generally) are good guys in their contest vs. Trump admin. Misplaced belief?! (& hopes!)’

Annie Feighery: ‘I would point to social cohesion as a primary factor from which trust in public institutions is a symptom. Poverty is the most common setting for both. Building mechanisms of/for elasticity and fostering interpersonal cooperation consistently help both. Classic social cap theory.’

Jose Manuel Roche: ‘Plenty of good examples in Latin America of countries that were able to overcome political polarization – often the result of sweat and tears. How Democracies Die is full of historical examples.’

Samy Ahmar: ‘A useful reference is “Why Nations Fail” in which the distinction between extractive & inclusive institutions is a helpful key to explore how trust between citizens and their rulers is built and destroyed. It doesn’t cover political apathy and distrust in rich countries though.’

What do I take from these? That rebuilding trust is a long hard slog – like reputations, trust takes decades to build, and hours to lose.

Paddy v Populism.

There must be more to it than that though. For example, the arrival of new political actors – movements, parties, charismatic leaders etc – often leads to an upsurge in trust as the public believes that ‘this time, they will be different’. Case in point is Evo Morales in Bolivia. In some circumstances that new trust endures at least for a good few years; in others it vanishes like the morning dew. But there always seems to be some cycle of illusion and disillusion with political leaders, perhaps more so than with others (eg faith leaders). Anyone got any thoughts or research to recommend on that?

And what about the role of intermediaries as trust brokers – non-politicians who have public trust and can say ‘this leader or issue really matters – get involved’? There are loads of these – youtube vloggers, cultural icons, religious leaders or secular saints like David Attenborough (here’s his recent public coronation at Glastonbury – what wouldn’t politicians to have that kind of appeal?). In what circumstances do their interventions and appeals make a significant impact?

Idle musings in the jetlagged hours – feel free to chip in.

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7 Responses to “How have societies rebuilt trust in their leaders? Your ideas please!”
  1. Hi Duncan, For me, people use the word ‘trust’ far too loosely, and forget the link between trust and trustworthiness. So I think important to pick apart trust a bit more to know what you are actually meaning by it. We are doing a project on ‘Earning Trust in Tech Governance – and so thinking about this a bit more. Like The Campaign we are looking at Principles for Earning Trust, but also looking at the psychological/sociaological reasons why these usually rather prosaic looking principles don’t get take up in practice.

    So, there is active trust, usually in individuals – where we make a conscious decision based on whether they will fulfil our expectations, usually based on our belief in their competence for the job you require of them and their alignment with our values and often our belief in their self-lessness. (Firemen are supposedly the most trusted people and politicians the least, unsure of the source of that sorry!)

    Then there is passive trust, or just action, which looks like trust to the naked eye, but has not much active expectation attached, but because you have to do something, or because you are prioritising your need/want etc over your other values or belief in their competence.

    I actively trust my physio at the moment because he is sorting me out and has every time I have been to him. I don’t remotely trust my plumber, in fact I think he is useless, but don’t know anyone else and have to get my hot water sorted because I am sick of cold showers. Both acts of choice look the same, but on is active trust the other is passive trust, or ‘taking a punt’, ie crossing fingers and hoping, that I am right and crossing fingers. Also, I wouldn’t trust the physio to do the plumbing and vice versa, so our trust is very context specific.

    The assumption often is that hiring someone, voting for someone, using a product (Facebook/Google/cosmetic face creams/organic food is about active trust when it isn’t necessarily at all. It could be about usefulness over values, hope over experience or values over expectation.

    Even many Trump supporters it appears don’t necessarily trust him to do the job to which they have voted for him, they just like what he stands for, so will ‘take a punt’ on him for different reasons.

    So I don’t think in your description of ‘an upsurge of trust’ it is necessarily trust we are looking at, so much as hope, or ‘taking a punt’. Though if the research says ‘I trust them to do x’ then maybe so, but I don’t see much trust research or much feelings research which picks apart what people mean by trust tho may be wrong. I am hoping to do much more of that soon!

    • I know, this is the reason why I now focus on governance because frankly that is all we have to facilitate to good and stop the bad. In my view we should spend just as much time as we do blaming Facebook in blaming ourselves – it is people who are inflaming and lying etc etc, and yet it’s so much easier to blame the faceless corporation, or the face of the corporation than look at why we are so many of us falling prey to polarising behaviours etc etc.

  2. Thanks for the mention Duncan.
    I’d link your points about the ‘current state of politics’ and ‘rebuilding trust is a long, hard slog’. It’s because of the former (which I’d widen to include the current state of public dialogue, debate and decision-making) that we need to embark on the latter. Trustworthiness and trust are both complex AND vital, even more so given the tech revolution context, so we need to think hard about ways to build them where they are lacking and needed. There is trust out there eg. in nurses, teachers, engineers, all professions that have a degree of what one might call ‘institutionalised trust’ through qualifications, accreditations etc. Should we try to replicate that for public leaders and influencers? What about the trust inherent in platforms like Airbnb and Uber? What can we learn from there? What other mechanisms might there be for building trustworthiness and trust? Interested in thoughts.
    And I’d prefer ‘ambitious’ to ‘over-optimisitic’! It’s a long, hard slog after all.
    Thanks again.

  3. In Belgium, periods of breakdown of thrust have often ended with “grand bargains” where a very wide coalition of spanning most ibterests and civil society agree on a change of some fundamental rules. E.g after the first world war, with democatisationand workers’ rights, the “school pact” bringing peace between catholics and non catholics. Changing the constitution requires 2/3 in parliament. However recent history shows that only a political supermajority is not good enough.