Trust me, they owe it to us

November 17, 1995

Trust has become the buzzword of the decade, and with good reason. Sometimes it feels as if you cannot trust anyone. You cannot trust the streets to be safe, cannot trust your employer not to lay you off, and cannot trust your pension to support you when you are old.

And it is pretty hard to trust a government that won the last election under the slogan you cannot trust Labour and then followed up its victory with its very own tax bombshell.

Only a third of the British people now trust the judiciary. Only 25 per cent trust local government, falling to 15 per cent for government and big business. And you do not have to spend much time in universities to realise trust is at a pretty low ebb.

But it is intriguing that institutions such as universities and charities which might be expected to value trust most of all have been overtaken by business in the race to restore some integrity.

The business world has been littered with new initiatives to sort out its ethics. Sir Adrian Cadbury and Sir Richard Greenbury each had their committees, and within big firms a small sub-industry is growing up as consultants help them to introduce new codes of conduct, help lines and ethics training. But there have been few parallels in the public sector. As the Nolan committee tried to draft more serious guidelines for Parliament and government it was the perfect time for Francis Fukuyama to publish his book Trust showing why high-trust societies tend to do better not only socially but also economically than societies with low trust.

Despite its fair share of flaws, the book casts light on much that has been happening in British institutions. A perverse logic has been at work. Justifying many of the recent reforms has been the idea that the public no longer trusts professionals. That is why government now defines far more precisely what is taught in classrooms. It is why the police, hospitals and universities are now subject to batteries of performance measures and auditing.

Of course some of these measures improve management. They bring clarity where there was vagueness. They can release entrepreneurial energy and illuminate whether resources are being used effectively. But it is bizarre that governments which are so distrusted should use a scarcely more trusted group - the accountants - to tighten their control over groups like teachers and GPs which remain relatively trusted by the public.

It is quite difficult to run any organisation if you do not have a baseline of trust. If the bosses show no commitment or loyalty to the people working under them then those people respond in kind. They do not stretch themselves. Information ceases to be shared. It becomes harder to persuade people to work together in teams, and harder to motivate them because there is no clear sense of shared purpose.

It is time to turn on its head John Kennedy's comment that you should not ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. If you have a relationship with an institution, whether a big firm or a college, it is legitimate to ask what it can do for you.

What does it owe you? How committed is it to you? How much does it trust you to do your job, and how much will it share its thinking and information with you? The new managerialism has all been about greater flows of information upwards, and rather minimal flows of information downwards. If we are to restore a modicum of loyalty and commitment - basic English words which lost out to the new jargon of managerial efficiency - that is where we should now be looking.

Geoff Mulgan is director of Demos, the independent think tank.

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