We need ways of improving trust if we are to overcome the crisis of democracy

The latest data from the OECD shows that trust and confidence in liberal democratic governments has fallen to depressing new lows. However, the solutions the organisation offers are more of the same old ‘good governance’ accountability agenda that been touted since the 1990s. Matthew Wood asks whether we need more innovative ways of engaging the public to really invigorate our ailing democracies.

A sculpture at the Economist's London HQ: time to look at new ways of increasing trust in politics? (Credit: Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0)

A sculpture at the Economist’s London HQ: time to look at new ways of increasing trust in politics? (Credit: Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0)

A recent issue of The Economist published a short but prescient article lamenting ‘crumbling confidence’ in liberal democratic governments across the OECD. The article presents some fascinating data from a report that gives us yet more cause to worry about ‘democracy in crisis’. The headlines are as follows:

  1. Only 40% of citizens in OECD countries trust their governments, down 5 points from 2007.
  2. Trust was hit hard by the financial crisis. In Ireland, Greece and Portugal trust is down by more than 20 points, and in Greece now rests at an astonishingly low 12%.
  3. Trust in ‘emerging’ countries is comparatively healthy, sitting at 54%. Interestingly from a democratic perspective, the Chinese and Indonesian governments (certainly not considered paragons of liberal democracy) come out in the top 3.

Accountability Again

The Economist is certainly right that this data is deeply concerning, even ‘dispiriting’. The questions inevitably raised are ‘why is this happening?’ and ‘what is to be done?’, and here the OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría has been particularly vocal. In a recent speech to the OECD Network of Senior Officials from Centres of Government, he set out a ‘strategy on trust’ that contained some familiar elements: integrity, transparency and engagement:

  • Integrity: ‘Too many citizens believe that corruption in government is widespread. At the OECD we help countries to strengthen trust in the policy making process by developing good practice principles in high-risk areas and monitoring their implementation’.
  • Transparency: ‘Citizens want to know how their money is being spent. Governments must be accountable, and this means publishing and communicating easily digestible budget data’.
  • Engagement: ‘We need to get serious about Open Government as an interactive process that promotes inclusive and responsive policy making through real engagement with citizens. Trust is not only about tackling corruption and putting government data on websites, it is also about giving citizens a voice in the process’.

As much as it’s difficult to find fault in any of these largely agreeable themes, there is a distinct sense of déjà vu here. Since the 1990s, international organisations have promoted ‘good governance’ based on exactly the principles of transparency and openness Gurría advocates. Western states have made reams of government data, reports, accounts, etc. available like never before via Freedom of Information acts other forms of ‘open government’. We’ve also seen a significant growth in consultations‘big society’ programmes, and the like. In other words we live in an era of what John Keane (2009) calls ‘Monitory Democracy’:

Monitory democracy is a new historical form of democracy, a variety of ‘post-parliamentary’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms … Within and outside states, independent monitors of power begin to have tangible effects. By putting politicians, parties and elected governments permanently on their toes, they complicate their lives, question their authority and force them to change their agendas – and sometimes smother them in disgrace (pp.688-689)

Keane goes on to document a stunning array of ‘over one hundred new types scrutinising institutions’ scrutinising all aspects of political systems including their inputs (elections), outputs (policy evaluations) and throughputs (processes of decision making within government) (p.690). So, if we are to take the word of Keane’s extensive study, as well as the variety of academic literature on accountability, the world of integrity, transparency and engagement Gurría yearns for is already with us. And yet, as the Gallup survey data shows, it has not, and is not, making us trust our governments more.

Arguably, and controversially, this endless quest for accountability may even have paradoxically fuelled disenchantment with democracy. Matthew Flinders, Director of the Crick Centre, warns that too much transparency, openness and accountability can be as damaging as too little, as it fuels public expectations to unsustainable levels. In a similar vein, political philosopher Stephen Bilakovics even suggests that the very principle of openness may be the source of democracy’s problems, because it exists as an unsustainable ideal of absolute citizen power and control against which the reality of messy political compromises can never measure up.

A Way Forward?

If it is the case, then, that yet more accountability and yet more openness has not, and will not, solve our democratic deficit (and may even exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problem), then what is to be done? Besides the already considerable body of academic recommendations on this topic, if we dig a little deeper into the findings we see a very interesting trend that may be overlooked in the headlines, as the OECD itself notes:

Despite diminishing trust in national government, citizens are generally pleased with the many public services they receive locally in their daily lives. For instance, on average 72% of citizens reported having confidence in their local police force. Almost the same percentage considered themselves satisfied with health care, and 66% were satisfied with the education system.

This point could be crucial for understanding the problem we face. Put simply, citizens seem to trust institutions more when they know more about them, understand how they work, and interact with them more. It would hence be unsurprising that trust in traditionally ‘big government’ Nordic countries is generally higher (as shown in the Gallup data), or that governments regularly holding citizen referenda (such as Switzerland) also come high up the list.

By contrast, despite numerous accountability initiatives, large and complex democracies like Britain, Germany, France, the US and Australia are almost inevitably more distant than the relatively smaller countries (or the ones with relatively emergent democratic cultures) higher up the table. In these latter countries, since public interaction with government will often be infrequent and complex, trust may be more difficult to build and maintain than merely posting impenetrable accounts and reports on anonymous government websites and pretending this is ‘democratic engagement’.

A different approach, then, might be called for. Could it be that finding ways to help citizens understand government beyond ceaseless ‘accountability’ initiatives might help? We could start by enabling people to understand the political process through citizenship education programmes and public engagement initiatives in public arenas – churches, libraries, theatres, cafes, pubs, shopping centres – thinking outside the box a bit.

These events could bring together politicians, public figures and other experts (academics, even?) to build a genuine public sphere and help a cynical public understand why politics really matters. The Crick Centre’s recent event on Britain’s House of Lords was an attempt to begin a wider debate about the future of our democratic institutions. Perhaps this approach is optimistic. What the latest data shows, though, is that if anything the old international trust agenda is not working, and we need ways of improving trust that go further and deeper.

Note: this post originally appeared on the Crick Centre’s blog, and can be found here. It represents the views of the author and not of the LSE or Democratic Audit. Please read our comments policy before posting. The shortened URL for this post is: https://buff.ly/IJVtx7

matthew-woodMatthew Wood is the Deputy Director of the Crick Centre and a Visiting Fellow at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG)

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