A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma: Exploring Political Trust

Gerry Stoker

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis

Bridging the trust divide between citizens and government is no easy task. When a relationship has broken down then repairing it is not straightforward. The results of our 2018 survey (reported in more detail in the previous blog) reveal the connection between the Australian people and their politicians hanging by a rather tenuous thread.

Our Democracy 2025 project aims at bridging the trust divide is framed by a recognition of the scale of the problem but also by its complexity. There are at least four dimensions to exploring the trust divide that suggest we are tackling a very puzzling issue.

The first and most obvious part of the puzzle is that there is no one simple explanation for what drives or undermines political trust. The research on the issue of political trust is one of the most voluminous in the social sciences, reflecting of course that the issue has been a concern in many countries for decades.

There has been a sustained interest in what might be called a demand-side take on trust. This work focuses on how much individuals trust government and politics and goes on to explore who they are. What is it about citizens, like their educational background, class, location, country or cohort of birth which makes them trust or not? Are citizens changing their outlook and perspectives which in some way is making them less trusting and willing to participate in formal politics?

Matching this focus there is a strong interest in supply-side explanation. The argument here is that it is the supply of government that matters most in orienting the outlooks of citizens. This is mediated through direct experiences, social networks and exchanges, and messages offered by the press, television and social media. It is common to consider whether it is perceptions of the performance of government, or its apparent procedural fairness and quality or whether there is something in the way that the trustworthiness of political institutions is communicated that matters most to trust.

The demand and supply side factors are numerous and in approaching reform options there is unlikely to be a straightforward linear causal path to move from defining the problem, understanding and explaining it and designing counter measures. The implication of this insight for the Democracy 2025 project is to develop understanding of this complexity and the need to develop a multi-faceted strategy to tackle issues of trust.

A second dimension to the puzzle of bridging the divide between citizens and government is that reforms that on paper seem to provide part of the solution can in fact exacerbate the problem. Offering more participation or consultation can turn into a tokenistic exercise and generate more cynicism and negativity among citizens. Providing performance data – the bread and butter of modern government – so that citizens can judge if promises made have been kept does not always produce more trust. Rather it can lead to exercises by which government officials try to manipulate the way that citizens judge their performance. Positive data is given prominence, less helpful data sometimes hidden. Meanwhile on the ground, front-line public servants and many citizens find the claims of success contrasting with their own more negative experiences. Far from promoting trust, paradoxically, the packaging of performance may have contributed to the emergence of populism and loss of trust by citizens.

The implication of this observation for the Democracy 2025 project is that it needs to focus as much on the issues of democratic practice as the principles. Part of the ambition of the project is to establish mechanisms whereby good practice can be specified and elaborated and shared through learning mechanisms, so that good practice becomes the norm rather than the exception.

A third part of the puzzle is who should be driving the push for change? In any reform movement there must be leaders of change. But are politicians the right group to lead the charge? If they are deeply implicated in the processes that led to the trust divide can they be leaders of a more positive path forward? It is difficult to imagine a substantial shift in political practice without their engagement but equally the last decade has seen probably more instances of politicians trying to exploit the trust divide to garner support rather than attempts to resolve the issue. The emergence of a populist trope – in which the hopeful politician presents themselves as the one who speaks the truth, is not part of the corrupt elite and who will get things done – in both established and challenger parties is one of the most dominant political trends of the last decade.

The Democracy 2025 project recognizes that engagement with political elites will be part of the dynamic needed for reform but equally there will be a need to develop other partnerships, with (amongst others) the public service and with the media. Above all we need to engage citizens in the process. There can be no solution to the puzzle of political trust without their engagement. Bringing these different groups together in a shared project of reform will not be straightforward.

A final and tricky part of the puzzle of trust is that no one is clear about what is the right level of trust. The twin enemies of democracy it could be argued are citizens that are either too cynical to engage or too naïve in providing support to the political system. But what is the equilibrium point between political trust and distrust?

The end goal of Democracy 2025 is also difficult to identify. The original tag of “riddle attached to a mystery” was applied by Winston Churchill to the foreign policy of Russia in 1939; so, it might be fitting to borrow one of his other often quoted phrases:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” (Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947).

Democracy 2025 is ultimately about creating a space so that Australians can reshape their democratic practices in ways that are better suited to the realities and challenges of the twenty first century. Democracy. Are you in?

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