Trust is the key

Minister for Government Reform of the Netherlands and Chair of the 2005 OECD Ministerial Meeting on Strengthening Trust in Government

Even a few short decades ago, power and politics seemed to be played out only at election time, when politicians would consult the people, then return to government or opposition to take care of the affairs of the state. The next election was barely on their minds. Citizens, whether through trust or ignorance, generally would ask no more of them than that.

Those times are over. People are more educated and demanding of those they elect (and pay) to govern them. Governments in turn have responded by modernising themselves and becoming more prepared. In recent decades, they have adapted not only their policies to new demands and expectations, but have also changed their ways of working. They have become more open and transparent, reformed their regulatory systems and transformed their public services to become more client-oriented.

Nevertheless, despite these recent developments, it is far from certain that the relationship between citizens and government has improved. In fact, as polls, elections and referenda show, people’s confidence in government seems to have weakened and their sense of dissatisfaction grown. This disenchantment spills beyond the ballot box, as is shown by demonstrations, occasionally even ending in disorder.

All democratic governments depend on public support. That means garnering trust, which people will invest as long as they are convinced that government will act in their interest and that of society as a whole. Without trust, there can be no democratic, legitimate and effective government. Trust is not a luxury. It is a cornerstone of all healthy democracies.

Ordinary people not only have a right to good government, but more than ever they also need leadership to help them cope with the major challenges of today. People feel exposed on several fronts: cost of living, unemployment, pensions, health care, threats to safety and security, globalisation and internationalisation. At the same time, government needs public trust to be able to play its roles properly, and to serve the interests of society in general. Strengthening trust of citizens has quite simply become a matter of survival for open, democratic government.

What must be done? This is the question facing OECD ministers meeting in Rotterdam on 28 November. But to answer it, to find a therapy that works, we will need the right diagnosis. Firstly, we must establish the cause behind this loss of public trust, and secondly, ask what can be done to win back this indispensable condition of our governmental system.

To steer the debate, allow me to offer a few pointers. For a start, the weakening of trust in government does not seem to be caused by mere indifference to the “public good”. On the contrary, surveys in my country show that people crave for more involvement in public matters, not less. Sure enough, voters’ turnout at elections has declined, but it seems that people no longer consider elections as the only effective means of expressing their opinions, demands, feelings and interests.

But if free elections, however key to democracy, are no longer a sufficient means for knowing what people think and want, then what is? How can government act in accordance with the needs and demands of their citizens? Should it adapt its structures and procedures, for example, by making more use of direct forms of decisionmaking, such as referenda on important issues? Should there be more “collaborative and deliberative decisionmaking” between interested citizens and professional government officials?

The role of the media also demands our attention. Television and newspapers have long been fundamental for freedom of expression and debate in our democracies, and that role may have intensified with the emergence of the Internet, and blogs in particular. Should the media be further harnessed as an “interface” in articulating the feelings and opinions of citizens and society and in shaping the agenda of government? Personally, I am not convinced, but the question demands close reflection nonetheless.

Mr Pechtold ©Dutch government

Perhaps the causes of the weakening of trust are cultural rather than procedural, or else a public reaction to behaviour and attitudes in government. Are governments still too remote and out of touch with their citizens, or on the contrary, are we seen as being too interfering?

Performance may also offer an explanation. Public management theories argue that public trust relies on the quality of government performance. By emulating private sector principles, such as effectiveness and efficiency, government can satisfy citizen interests and demands. Certainly, there is a lot to gain in further improving service delivery, but according to this idea, if people trusted their governments more in the past, then government performance must also have been better then than it is today. Frankly, I doubt if this is the case.

Trust cannot be bought, it must be earned. People will accept occasional lapses in performance as long as they feel the government and its representatives are on their side. Perhaps thanks to higher levels of wealth and education, citizens have become more demanding. Two contradictory trends are at work: on the one hand, people increasingly want to be left alone, decide about their lives and their community themselves, with less government involvement; on the other, people demand a lot from government, particularly when things go wrong. Perhaps citizens expect too much! Politicians may be to blame for this, by raising expectations about their capacity to solve every problem. All too soon, realism sets in, followed by disillusion, then frustration and even despair. Governments cannot make people happy, but perhaps we can do more to help people build trust in themselves.

I invite you to tackle these issues with open, self-critical, minds. We can and must learn from each other by exchanging experiences and views. It is my goal for this conference to come up with some original concrete proposals to help us governments win back and strengthen public trust in the society of the 21st century. The OECD, which is already examining the issues, should step up this crucial area of its work. For as we all know, trust is really at the heart of sustainable economic and social development in free democracies.

©OECD Observer No 252, November 2005

Cover No 252-253 November 2005, Image ©Reuters

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