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Politics and the trust conundrum

There’s a very obvious remedy for governments that wish to restore the public’s trust: become transparent, honest and inclusive. This, however, is intrinsically difficult. Any government that managed it would not be a government as we know it, but something else entirely.

Why are transparency, honesty and inclusion so difficult to achieve? The prevailing concept and model of government is an institution that is elected or self-appointed to govern others: government by a few of the many. Whether in China or the US, or places in between, all such governments rely on a rather flimsy claim of omniscience: that those in government have access to knowledge that the rest of us do not. Their ultimate claim, per Hobbes, is that only the leviathan can provide for the security and safety of the citizenry.

If governments were to become fully transparent, the governed would see “inside the box” and would see what those of us who have worked in government already know–that the king’s clothes are rather scanty, at best. Like most big, ossified hierarchies, governments are actually rather bad at collecting and processing knowledge. They are very poorly designed for it, a deficit that, thanks to the ubiquitous and rapid knowledge offered on the internet, is becoming clear. One reason trust is declining in government is that the claims by officials and politicians that they understand fully what is going on are less and less credible. Full transparency, ironically, would further reduce their credibility. Reheating Bismarck, the sausage machine is not a pretty sight.

Full honesty would destroy most governments. As a British diplomat and sometime speechwriter for a foreign minister, I often, indeed almost always, wrote statements, press releases, talking points and speeches about things I knew almost nothing about, from bombing targets in Iraq to the future of Africa. I could not have admitted this at the time. Certain dismissal would have followed, not least because more or less everyone else was doing the same thing. To admit it would be to pull the whole house down. I’m not proud of this confession, but I doubt that anything has changed. Like the rest of us poor ignorant fools, governments and politicians spend a lot of time desperately groping around in the darkness, wondering what on earth to do next.

It is little wonder that contemporary governments, ever more challenged to convince the public, spend so much energy on presentation. This used to be called press relations but has now been confused by the overheated discourse about “social media”. The essence, however, remains the same–one-way communication. Presentation, not policymaking, is the most important skill for any politician or “world leader” today. Honesty about this would destroy whatever slim faith the public has left. Government relies upon this veil of secrecy in order to have any authority at all.

Similarly, proper inclusion of those affected by policy would bring to an end the idea of an elite few who are uniquely qualified and informed to make decisions for the rest of us. Modern politicians love to talk about “public opinion” or “consultation” and occasionally can be seen to suffer “town hall” meetings or public debates, but these occasions are usually little more than theatre. Have you ever been asked your opinion by a politician? Even when I worked directly for them, in their very offices, this never happened. Public opinion polls are pathetically narrow and inadequate gauges of collective views on complicated and interconnected issues, as almost all issues are. Politicians who have spent a lifetime climbing up the greasy pole will not abolish the pole and descend again among the masses.

Moreover, government by the few lends itself all too well to the interests of those already powerful–the rich, large corporations and so on. They too are not going to give up their influence without a fight. In democracies as well as autocracies, government is all too corruptible by vested interests. Almost every country, democratic or not, suffers from such corruption, hidden or blatant, sometimes lawful. Ensuring that everyone’s interests are given a fair shot will abolish this comfortable status quo.

So what would it take to restore that trust? The answers are clear: decision-making that is genuinely open, transparent and inclusive. This is a different kind of

"One reason trust is declining in government is that the claims by officials and politicians that they understand fully what is going on are less and less credible. Full transparency, ironically, would further reduce their credibility. Reheating Bismarck, the sausage machine is not a pretty sight."

decision-making, but not, as many commentators and politicians pretend, an impossible kind. In the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, tens of thousands of citizens take part in decisions on the city’s budget. Such “participatory democracy” (call it “real democracy”) has transformed Porto Alegre. The city was once characterised by severe inequality between a wealthy centre and impoverished slums. Government was corrupt and inefficient; public services disproportionately favoured the wealthier areas.

But once everyone was included in decision-making, as the World Bank later reported, public spending became more evenly distributed. Provision of basic services such as water, sanitation, schools and roads improved. The numbers of schools quadrupled. Indices of welfare, including health and education, all improved. Interestingly, “politics” and partisan disputes diminished. Corruption in government contracting sharply reduced, once the process became transparent. Citizen participation improved.

This is what democratic government could look like. This is how governments can restore trust. But don’t hold your breath for such reforms to be instituted quickly. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Those who benefit from the current institutional set-up will talk about “reform” and “consultation”, but where it matters–how money is spent–will remain business as usual. Inexorably, trust will continue to decline as the gap between claims and reality persists and inequality mounts. Those who have the power today need to think of new excuses, because the old ones are not working.

For more viewpoints on trust, see www.oecdforum.org and www.oecd.org/yearbook

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