Written collaboratively by Ilana Taub & Jules Hill-Landolt

Attention – there is a disease spreading throughout society. It is highly contagious and potentially virulent. Initial symptoms resemble Tourette’s, except the outbursts are manifested in indiscriminate and uncontrolled use of phrases such as “public trust is at an all time low”, “rebuilding public trust” and “public trust has been broken”. Lazy journalists, opportunistic politicians and embattled business leaders are particularly at risk of infection. Prognosis is not good: as the volume of public trust outcries grows louder, the willingness to examine what has caused the breakdown in the first place diminishes, leading to ever greater oscillations between breakdowns and bluster.

What really is public trust anyway?

Is it trust in the institutions and individuals who are democratically elected to fulfil society’s needs? If you Google it, one of the first search results is “the BBC is not alone in losing public trust” – suggesting that public trust is related to more than the institutions we elect, and should be interpreted as the general trust of the public – the sum of individuals’ decisions to trust or not trust, something.

So how come public trust suddenly seems to get betrayed ALL THE TIME?

Watching Newsnight’s coverage of the BBC scandals last week it appeared that people weren’t even trying to make sense any more – simply adding random words and exclamations of outrage around some combination of public, build, breakdown, and trust seemed to be sufficient for the message that the ever growing number of witless politicians, journos and business leaders were trying to get across to the ‘untrusting’ public.

But as we watched everyone leaping to condemn recent goings on at the BBC we found ourselves wondering if the public really had anything to do with it. Seeing MPs jumping up to demand retribution on the BBC, of course invoking the betrayal of public trust in front of a stereotypically empty chamber (genuinely an issue of public trust), we couldn’t help doubt that any more than a handful of constituents had actually written to their MP expressing their own outrage and insisting on their democratic right to representation on the matter. Without turning this blog into a defence of the BBC, the extent to which politicians feel that they need to meddle with the affairs of one of the most respected broadcasting institutions in the world remains bewildering to say the least. Yes they haven’t covered themselves in glory lately, but how many organisations can claim an unblemished record over 90 years?

More likely, in our opinion, is that the public probably didn’t even realise that they had trust that could be explicitly broken, at least not until repeated poorly designed surveys and polls asked them if they felt that their trust had been betrayed by x, y and z. It’s probably fair to say that the public doesn’t think about public trust, until it is indeed broken. That’s not to say the public trust isn’t a vital component of a functioning society. Adam Smith did not preach from an alter of self-interest: contrary to the widely-believed claims of neo-classical economists, Smith actually insisted that trust and fairness were essential pre-requisites for trade.

So what’s the beef?

Today, invoking public trust seems to have become a tactic employed by those seeking to diffuse a situation by shifting blame away from themselves or to distract the public from other greater issues requiring resolution. Most worryingly, it provides a perfect frame around a situation to ensure that the root causes of the problems being reviled are obscured and ignored, both by the public and by those responsible for maintaining the public’s trust. It is no different to any other ridiculed management speak or political mumbojumbo – mystifying and hollow in equal measure.

Oh Bah Humbug – it’s not that bad really

Don’t believe us? Think that businesses and politicians really care about what we think? Well let’s look at business. The issue of trust in business institutions first started appearing in common usage around about the start of last decade. ‘Public trust in the institution of business’ was held to be at an all time low after the Worldcom and Enron scandals. The economies of the West had the perfect opportunity to examine what the institution of business had been allowed to become over the past 30 years of rampant deregulation and speculation. It didn’t.

Today, we remain mired in recession following the 2008 financial crash that scalped some of the largest businesses in the world. Public trust in banking was (and still is) at an all time low. Something had to be done. Nothing, really, was. In the UK a puny tax was placed on bonuses that were already being paid off shore. The US passed the Dodd-Frank Act, a grotesquely watered-down piece of unimplementable legislation drafted by special-interest lobbyists. It’s such a success that a recent study reports ‘the law won’t lead [investment firms] to alter their investing style.’

As soon as you hear someone say, “we must rebuild public trust”, you can be pretty sure that that’s where the conversation is going to end. Which is ridiculous: how can you rebuild trust, without fixing the problems that cause this supposed trust to be broken in the first place? It’s like sticking a band-aid on cancer.

What do we need?

We don’t need to rebuild public trust – we need to rebuild our social and commercial institutions so that they represent all of our best interests long into the foreseeable future – trust is a function of reliability and understanding. Businesses and institutions need to be honest about what they are trying to achieve and what they need to do to succeed in those goals. If the public understands why decisions are being made, it would not only trust them but in some cases, possibly even help to achieve them. But that would require us all to take a long hard look in the mirror and figure out where we think best interests end, and greed starts.




  1. “we need to rebuild our social and commercial institutions so that they represent all of our best interests long into the foreseeable future”

    Arguably, all of our social and commercial institutions are failing us by refusing to take climate change seriously. Britain may have a law to cut emissions but the policies the government is pursuing on energy, transport and others are barely sufficient. Businesses may want to be more sustainable but are ultimately hogtied by the need to consider profit.

    Essentially we have an economic system design failure. The system was designed for a set of circumstances that applied in the past – the planet seemed huge, the economy and population were relatively small and both resources and waste sinks were abundant. These are no longer relevant assumptions with a 6 going on 9 billion population and a need to keep at least 80% of known fossil fuel deposits in the ground.

    There are no easy solutions but at least if we face up to the economic issues there is less chance we will need to face the natural ones.

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