3 Ways to Counter the “Global Implosion of Trust”

Every year, the Edelman Trust Barometer measures the level of trust across the world. The 2017 report was particularly damning, calling the last year a “global implosion of trust”.  The report found that less than 50% of citizens in two-thirds of countries surveyed trusted mainstream institutions such as business, government, media and NGOs. Equally troubling is the declining trust in expertise: people are just as likely to trust a friend or family member as they are a subject matter expert or professional. The floodgates are now open to populism and/or protectionism fuelled by fear, anger, and misinformation.

In order to tackle the stark decline in public trust, the report recommends a new model which places citizens and tackling their fears at the heart of institutions’ work. For us, an obvious place to start is the citizen engagement process. More so than ever, it’s crucial to engage in legitimate, defensible processes which build trust, rather than continue to erode it. Here are three ways to start addressing the global crisis in trust:

1. Demonstrate that citizens’ voices matter – tangibly.

Symbolic citizen engagement has been one of the most damaging factors for public trust. While new technologies have facilitated unprecedented access between citizens,  governments and key decision-makers, there is little evidence to suggest that increased opportunities for citizen engagement have resulted in genuine impact.

Much of the backlash against establishment organizations stems from the belief that citizens are unable to affect change in their own lives and communities. They are being paid lip service with no real results. For example, an Ipsos study indicates that 55% of Canadians believe that “public consultations are just for show”, and that decision-makers “rarely take into consideration the feedback received during these sessions”. In addition, a recent study found that the overwhelming influence of economic elites, interest groups, and lobby groups means that the average citizen in the United States has essentially no impact on public policy decisions.

Repeated exposure to this kind of bait and switch” only serves to dissuade people from participating, and solidifies the belief that the decisions have already been made, and that consultations are just for show.

2. Collect feedback data that is defensible.

Being able to clearly demonstrate that decisions made were shaped by citizen input is crucial to rebuilding trust. “Closing the loop” refers to the process of notifying participants about the final decision, and showing how their feedback was able to impact the decision-making process. This can come in many forms, such as: “What We Heard” reports, infographics, videos, diagrams, and more. For participants, knowing that their feedback has made an impact is critical to making engagement meaningful and habit-forming.

However, this places a huge amount of responsibility on the feedback collection process. Anonymous online participation has opened the doors to bots, spammers, trolls, and others who seek to undermine the online democratic process. In order to take the public’s opinions into consideration, decision-makers have to be confident that the feedback collected is coming from real, relevant members of the public who will be impacted – not bots, sock puppets, or fake accounts. Simultaneously, they have to be able to prove to the public that the feedback is coming from people just like them – not lobbyists, donors, or other special interests.

Approaches such as digital identity authentication are working towards strengthening the legitimacy and defensibility of the feedback data collected, so that both citizens and institutions can be confident in its reliability. Whether it’s geo-verifying participants to ensure that people within the affected area are being heard, or connecting participants’ digital identity with their offline identities, these measures provide additional confidence for both decision-makers and citizens. This enables decision-makers to use the feedback data with greater certainty, while simultaneously proving to citizens that they are being consulted and heard.

3. Reshape trust in institutions with radical transparency.

People simply don’t trust the information coming from establishment or institutional sources. And with good reason: the Snowden revelations and other similar leaks have shown that citizens are right to be suspicious or skeptical of official information provided by the government. Unfortunately, growing mistrust has led to the rise of “fake news”, which pander to citizens by providing misinformation which aligns with their preconceived notions or beliefs.

A move towards radical transparency – demonstrating to citizens that they’re privy to the information which affects decisions about them and their lives – is the only way to roll back the mistrust and cynicism.

There are some encouraging first steps. For example, the United States Congress introduced a bill on making data open and machine-readable by default. In short, data should be made public by default unless there is a legitimate reason to keep it private. Exceptions should be kept limited and clearly defined. Providing data in machine-readable formats also has significant impacts on the ability for citizens and advocacy groups to use that data in impactful and meaningful ways. Other efforts to expand and improve access include easier and more efficient processes for Freedom of Information requests, allowing for citizens to hold governments accountable more easily.

These are all just first steps: the path towards rebuilding trust will be long and arduous, especially in communities where there has been a history of mistrust and conflict between citizens and decision-makers. However, there is no sitting back: this “implosion of trust” cannot and should not be normalized. Our understanding of democracy hinges on it.

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