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A new approach to trust

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If we want to ‘rebuild trust’, let’s focus on competence and transparency. Trust is better considered as a by-product of our actions, rather than as a goal.

I’m not sure when ‘rally round the flag’ was first coined, but it broadly describes the tendency of countries or populations to pull together in times of crisis. Differences are set aside, criticisms muted and errors tolerated in the perceived national interest. This was again reflected in many countries at the start of the pandemic, when governments were struggling to get to grips with a virus that was new and deadly. Citizenries in countries where freedoms are highly valued were, in general, prepared to accept the power of states to impose measures that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. And more specifically, we saw this acceptance in action across the communications industry, as regulators, operators, authorities and governments acted together in a common interest to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19. After all, no-one wants to be seen as the ‘handbreak’ at a time of crisis.

After a while, however, the rallying effect fades as a more sceptical outlook is adopted. With it, issues of trust and trust dependancy ­– much referenced in IIC meetings over the last few years – come to the fore. They may be enhanced or eroded, as actions are progressively subjected to scrutiny, but there seems to be clear evidence that, at this point, a greater level of trust in authorities (be they government or regulatory bodies) is associated with greater compliance with rules and advice, such as mask-wearing and vaccine take-up.

It seems to me to be indisputable that increasing trust ‘in the system’ is a desirable goal. However, it also seems to me that there are at least two major obstacles. Firstly, trust is recognised as a hard-to-measure commodity with, as far as one can see, no agreed definition among researchers. In part, this is because individuals may often express trust in terms of personal experience – for example, if they or close family have suffered badly from the effects of Covid-19 or, correspondingly, have been affected economically. Secondly, there is general agreement that trust is more easily lost than it is gained. Academics point to the Spanish flu pandemic as an example of trust in authorities taking a generation to recover.

For these reasons, the objective to restore trust may be noble, but ultimately fruitless. Perhaps an alternative might be to focus on the precursors to trust: competence – the necessary skills and knowledge to make good decisions; and transparency – honesty, openness and the acceptance of accountability.

So, rather than bemoaning the lack of trust, a more useful aim might be for regulators and policymakers to improve competencies (or access to competencies), particularly in areas that may be non-traditional for them (areas such as new technology and competition rules), to approach the challenge from first principles (where the framework is permissive) and go to ever-greater efforts to explain both the logic and value of the decisions taken – as well as demonstrate a readiness to change them if the evidence supports it. The premise therefore is that trust in the end emerges from this and, if so, it will be because these authorities are perceived as competent and transparent.

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If we want to ‘rebuild trust’, let’s focus on competence and transparency. Trust is better considered as a by-product of our actions, rather than as a goal.

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Chris Chapman Chris Chapman President, International Institute of Communications; Chairman, Nihilent Australia Pty Limited
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