Trust. One little word with such far-reaching impact. We all know its importance in healthy relationships, but how important is it for the success of government institutions?
Trust is crucial for any relationship, including the relationship between citizens and government institutions. Without trust, we are merely living in a state of fear. To have confidence in anything, we have to let go of fear and trust: it is the key ingredient to allowing positive change to happen and the foundation on which anything can be built. Trust in the government is vital for the success of its policies, programmes and regulations that depend on the cooperation of citizens.
Trust in government has been declining in the last decade. Some put the catalyst of this breakdown at the beginning of the financial crises, which affected people’s lives in the western world on a massive scale. Since then, we have seen political divides grow stronger and populist, simple solutions grabbing all the headlines. The reality of our modern world is that it is complex, messy and changing more rapidly than ever.
Part of the collateral damage of this erosion of trust in the political process has been projected onto government institutions. The Edelman Trust Barometer has documented that public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 18% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (15%). Only one in five people feels that the system is working for them, while nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them.
This is a very dangerous place to be. The institutions of government are what make our world work the way it does. It is what allows roads to be built, schools to open every morning, water to arrive in our tap when we turn it on. The institutions of government provide the laws and rules that help to create a fairer society. Around the world, government institutions are not perfect (nor are private institutions), but with the right investment and support they can serve the needs of the public well.
Government institutions are run by people. The impact they make on all our lives is huge, but people generally only start to notice it when they experience something negative such as a government service that they require not being available to them. One of the reasons why the public does not fully comprehend or appreciate the sheer scale of work and positive impact that the government workforce does is because there is a culture of it not being noticed or celebrated. Great accomplishments seldom make the news, but the smallest mistake will make the front page! This culture leads to alienation between the public and the government – we are blind to the work that is being done on our behalf every day, its workforce becomes invisible to us, and dissonance is created.
At the heart of government institutions are people, public servants who need our support, not our contempt. They are there to serve our needs. If we had more faith in their commitment to doing their job well perhaps we would notice the positive impact they make. Strong government institutions provide a great framework for the free-market economy to work. But they require investment to keep and attract the right skills and implement support structures for staff to get their work done. In the current climate of distrust, this investment is needed more than ever.
The severe lack of trust in government institutions demonstrates an urgent desire for change. Honest communication, transparency and a record of delivering on promises would all certainly help us to build trust. And there is a big need for it. Institutions of governments can play their part in educating the public about what they do. Ignorance is not bliss, it too is born of fear. If the public were more aware and engaged in the work that government institutions do, there would be greater understanding. But, we have to remember our part too, and that is that trust is a tricky thing: it is given, not earned. Trust requires faith, not proof.
The problem with trusting is that it requires risk. There are no guarantees. And most people are afraid to take a risk, so they choose to “play safe” instead. But what does “playing safe” even mean? When you break it down, it’s just a euphemism for living in fear. And when we live in fear, we are not really living – we are not engaged, possibilities are not endless, and change cannot happen. If we want to be satisfied, if we want to have confidence in our relationships, we have to choose it, and to choose it we have to want it.
Now is the time for citizens and government institutions to come together and start building trust for a better future. If we can choose to trust, we are open to new possibilities. We allow ourselves to be surprised for the better and we allow ourselves to help bring about positive change that serves the greater good. It is possible. We just have to take a leap of faith.