Key measures of trust are at historic lows. We are used to seeing cyclical trends in trust, pegged to highs and lows in political and economic performance. As societies progress people become increasingly knowledgeable about government activities, leading to higher expectations of government to perform. Trust levels follow these patterns in ups and downs.
But this time things are different. Low levels of trust reflect a sustained backlash against the political and economic order in different parts of the world. Hard-fought advances in human rights and the fight against poverty, as well as the fabric of democratic institutions, are under duress.
In this publication, we invited some of the world’s leading doers and thinkers to provide insights to people negotiating these challenges around the world. In these pages, politicians, civic activists, business leaders and journalists help us to understand why trust in institutions has been declining, and how to get it back.
Declining trust, as the essays show, is caused by many factors - from corruption and elite capture to eroding social values. Globalization has been a double-edged sword. The world is richer because of it, but it has advanced an economic order that has resulted in growing inequality and conspicuous polarization between the haves and have-nots. It leaves hundreds of millions behind, not least when inequality perpetuates the power of elites whilst hollowing out the hopes of many people for their children’s futures.
People have solutions – but too often they are not being heard. The dearth of informed public debate and collective action to solve challenges has perpetuated the sense of disenfranchisement. People’s space to respectfully debate and disagree is constrained by a lack of opportunity and meaningful arenas in which to do so. In many cases, dissenting voices are met with heightened crackdowns – at worst, violently.
The problem is not new. Declining trust has deep roots. But it has been steadily deteriorating in recent decades before reaching this all-time low. The response must be bold and radical. The common sentiment weaving through all the essays in this publication is that solutions and processes to regain trust must embed the values of truth, openness, fairness, inclusion and participation. These values work together and need to be applied intelligently and comprehensively by governments willing to actively respond to the crisis in trust.
Process and values matter in policy-making. Giving citizens the opportunity to influence the substance of public policy can lead to better decisions, improved satisfaction and ultimately trust in government. We are witnessing examples of governments both at the national and subnational level modelling change from the inside out to build trust with citizens.
Public servants are being challenged out of their comfort zones. They are changing the way they interact with the public, seeking ideas from civil society and the private sector, and having honest exchanges about their capacity to deliver.
This is clear in many countries that have joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP). We know more is possible. The OGP aims at setting and sharing international norms and ensuring the values of truth, openness, fairness, inclusion and participation are central to rebuilding trust with citizens. Initiatives like Georgia’s Public Service Halls, Canada’s Open Dialogues, Buenos Aires Elige, and Ukraine’s ProZorro are illustrative of trust-building projects. This is just a beginning.
Platforms like OGP can contribute to reverse distrust in governments, and build momentum. As this publication shows, challenges faced by governments will become insurmountable without close collaboration with the private sector, civil society and the media. They must all play a role as partners, with the wider public in deliberation, decision making and action on public policy challenges. They all play a role in holding governments to account on their promises.
It is particularly crucial that governments address the expectations of their youth populations by introducing new participatory approaches to decisionmaking, for example. Women and marginalized communities must become equal partners in shaping our future.
An effective agenda to build trust must engage key demographics by design, and consciously bring their voices to the table. The complex challenges our world faces call upon formidable leadership from governments. But governments alone cannot solve them all. They need the ideas, wisdom and commitment of people.
Winnie Byanyima is an Open Government Ambassador and Executive Director, Oxfam International