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A Question of Trust - Again

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Just one in ten people believe that politicians will tell them the truth according to MORI research.
The same figures show that more than half believe that the man or woman in the street will do the same.

And it's not just politicians that fail the trust test. The Work Foundation in Public Value, Citizen Expectations and User Commitment say, "Only 48% of the public trust their council, compared to their local police force (74%) and hospital (79%). With regard to individuals, trustworthiness and honesty are the most highly rated qualities of public officials, but only 22% believe that they are actually trustworthy and honest."

This is deeply worrying. At a time when our country faces some very difficult decisions about what we should do about public finances, hardly anyone trusts those who are leading the way ahead.

How has it got this bad?

Successive governments have failed to demonstrate that they can be trusted to tell the whole truth all of the time. Every time government papers released decades later tell us a different story to that reported at the time, we believe we've (or rather previous generations) have been misled.

But recent events will have done their bit to erode any trust we might have had - the MPs' expenses scandal is just one of many instances. But there are also questions about whether politicians deliver manifesto promises.

Just like us

Part of the problem for politicians is that they are just like us. They behave as we would do. We will not readily admit to something that would harm our standing - nor do they. Every admission has to be wrenched from them.

And if they are open and forthcoming, then we will suspect their motives. We all tend to be driven by self-interest. It's not rational to say something that would markedly make our standing worse.

So what can politicians do about it?

1. Acknowledge that it is a problem

There is a danger in treating the trust problem as if it is not there. It is a massive elephant in the room. Begin by recognising that it is one of the risks that they will have to manage and address. Ensure that every action they take is designed to build trust over time. This is a matter for all politicians.

2. Be counter-intuitive

Do the opposite of what most people would expect. For Mr. Cameron, publish all details of dinner guests, weekend lunches, walks in the country and invitations to cocktail parties. For Mr. Milliband - the same. And Mr. Clegg.

Establish an independent inquiry to look at all parties' interactions with fund-raisers. It could look at who they have met with over the past two years, why and whether any have had an impact on party policy.

Confound low expectations.

3. Avoid blaming other people

Don't blame the media. Negative coverage can undermine trust but Demos research shows that the media is only one key factor. Word of mouth and personal experience are very equally important. And in many respects, the media will simply highlight and exaggerate things that you are already doing (or not doing).

4. Change their ways

This could be very simple:

  • Don't make promises you can't deliver
  • Don't oversell what you can do
  • Acknowledge when you have failed to deliver promises

5. Don't use weasel words or phrases

Clever people can find ways of implying one thing whilst saying another. If your intention in using language is to mislead, obfuscate, cloud, or hide meaning, then trust will bleed away. Say what you mean and mean what you say. This probably sounds trite but it's one of the ways that we build trust between each other every day. We all know that saying, "I hear what you say" probably means we're not really listening.

6. Always say sorry when you let people down

If the media extract a reluctant apology (or a non-apology apology: we are sorry that you felt we did not deliver) from you, then it's likely that the media will be trusted more than you (although people don't trust journalists either).

If you get something wrong, admit it, say sorry and move on. Don't drag the matter out through interminable processes that seek to kick the matter into the long grass (reviews, external evaluations, independent inspections etc.). Take responsibility quickly.

The UK is facing its toughest time in decades with many difficult decisions ahead. Many will suffer but as long as they can believe in the people leading them through the darkness, they will follow.

But first they need to be able to trust.

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