23 February 2014

The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer published this month suggests that in many places the commitment to integrity and trustworthiness is slipping . The survey findings are that trust in government has fallen to its lowest level in the 14 years of the survey – and in the United States trust in government is 21 points lower than trust in business. In the United States trust measures dropped 10 points – the drop was 13 points in Poland and 9 points in Mexico.

However in some of the 27 surveyed countries the situation was reversed.   The trend was of an improvement in trust in UAR, Indonesia, Australia, and the Argentine. The survey of 27,000 respondents in 27 countries did not cover the views of New Zealanders.

Good government depends on a commitment to the rule of law, a respect for the democratic process and public trust; trust that government will serve its citizens and a belief that officials are trustworthy and that they operate trustworthy systems.   

Trustworthiness flows from integrity rich conduct. Accountability, transparency and integrity are characteristics of trustworthiness.  Integrity embodies all ethical values.  It is much more than honesty.  It is what makes for wholeness.  In New Zealand, integrity in government is reflected in the spirit of service. Chief executives of Public Service departments have a statutory duty to imbue their employees with the spirit of service to the community – “government for the people”, as Lincoln observed at Gettysburg, and Aristotle wrote about the polis several millennia earlier.  They are also responsible for the integrity and conduct of their employees.

New Zealand agencies and their staff must comply with the integrity standards applied to them by the State Services Commissioner.  The greater the commitment to the Commissioner’s 18 standards – which are grouped by obligation into being  “fair”, “impartial”, “responsible” and ”trustworthy” –  the less likely incidents will occur which impact on perceptions of trustworthiness.

Trust belongs with citizens – not with leaders. It is not something to be managed through PR. It requires constant work – hence the cliché about being hard earned and easily spent.

An address to the OECD last month on Talking Trust – The Fall of Public Relations and the Rise of Public Leadership  emphasised how building trust necessitates community involvement. It is driven by citizens not leaders. “The future lies in what we do, not what we say. We should focus on actions, not words. Trust is not a message. It is an outcome. It is deeply behavioural.

“Trusted leadership demands not only truth, but ethics and values; leadership with vision; transparency and accountability; democracy and empowerment; transformation and a transition plan to achieve it; and, above all, deeds, not words.”