Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Citizen's Trust

"If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists - to protect them and to promote their common welfare - all else is lost."

Barack Obama

Arguably, it can seem understandable from a government perspective, that when people do talk and write, complaining about all things government, that it seems as if such people are all anti-government. But governments, just like any other organisation or individual, are not perfect and must be able to accept and learn from fair criticism. There are though, degrees of governmental error from simple careless mistakes to downright ineptitude, indifference, and arrogance, just as there are degrees of public complaint, from basic letters to the editor, to massive all-out protest marches, and riots. Ideally, surely everyone wishes that such relational breakdowns would not occur but such is part of the inevitabilities of human existence.

There is the view too from the governmental or status quo side, that tends to look at people who do stir up protest, as troublemakers, rabble-rousers, and such like. And from the public complaint side, there are many, as protesters, or who see themselves as some conscience of the government, who actually welcome and relish the idea of being so labeled, finding identity with the likes of so many famed, and not so famous personages of protest throughout history.

Complaint and protest are healthy checks on government power nonetheless, just as the formalised separate branches of democratic governments are established to curb excesses in each other. Any government that claims to look out for the interest of its citizens would or should acknowledge this and have adequate measures in place to accommodate feedback from their citizens on how they are performing. But creating such avenues for feedback and redress are futile and creates distrust if in the end the government does nothing to improve its act. The people’s assessment of the government then redounds to the cynical description of ‘all talk and no action,’ and trust is broken. Trust, we all know, lies at the heart of any relationship and between governments and their citizens it is no less. In a paper, Building Trust in Government by Improving Governance, Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, writes

“ Failed states, revolutions, civil wars, and other related traumatic failures of governance all share in common the absence or collapse of trust: between citizens and the state, between different political factions or parties, and between ethnic, social or class groups at the mass level.”

Perhaps another way to look at the situation of complaints and protest against government is not so much in the vein of being anti-government, but rather as being 'pro-people' or 'pro-citizen.' Undoubtedly, some may argue that this is all just an artifice of semantics and spin as we all are accustomed to see government and corporate officials do. Yet, conversely too, it must be acknowledged that the way we do configure concepts in our heads tends to determine how we then think of them and consequently how we act accordingly.

In fact, what government hasn’t been elected because they clothed themselves in the mantle of being 'pro-people'? Essentially, we all know, ‘the people’ is what actually society is all about with government being the pre-eminent and formal body, so formed, to get the people’s work done for them. So when governments do, or at least appear to act in the people’s interest, then the need or desire to be anti-government is a non sequitur and does not arise. But regardless of labels, 'anti-government' or 'pro-people,' the core issue for citizens is for the government to do what is right. It is just wholly unfortunate in some countries where as Voltaire once said “it is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”

But systems have and continue to be developed by the U.N. and other international agencies and by forward thinking governments, at national and local levels, to encourage stronger bonds and accountability and, of course, trust between them and their citizens. In a report titled Engaging Citizens in Measuring and Reporting Community Conditions, Alfred Ho, a professor from Indiana University, examines two case studies, one from Des Moines Iowa, the other from Boston Massachusetts:

“The two case studies show how local public officials can work effectively with citizen representatives and community leaders to define the critical issues in public policies and community conditions, develop specific indicators to measure progress, and engage elected officials and the public in using the data to guide policy making.”

Edelman, a large, self-described independent U.S. P.R. (public relations) firm, has been conducting what it calls its Trust Barometer Survey for the past ten years (surely there are some readers now wondering about the veracity of a report on trust from a P.R. firm). For this year (2009) the survey consisted of just under 4500 persons in 20 countries across five continents. In the report (Edelman TrustBarometer 2009), business was trusted more than governments in 13 of the 20 markets surveyed and trust in government remained steady or declined in 12 of the markets surveyed.

Trust too is also about the average citizen believing that he or she can bring about positive change in the society. In essence, it is about trust in virtue and natural justice. What works against this however is what Paul Rogat Loeb describes in his book Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Cynical Time where (although it speaks to and of its U.S. audience, his words are applicable to us as well),

“We mistrust our ability to make a difference. The magnitude of the issues at hand coupled with a sense of powerlessness has led far too many of us to conclude that social involvement isn’t worth the cost."

Our hope and so our trust in a better view of our future becomes halted by cynicism, which Loeb describes as a cynicism that “implies no institutions, truths, or community bonds are worth fighting for.”

As such, in our criticism of government, we must caution ourselves to never become so cynical as to believe things can never be improved. And we should always recognise that we have a role as well as a responsibility in helping direct the government to do that which is right by us, its people.

With greater use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by government agencies the concept of e-government has and continues to grow. However, government services so described do tend to bear expectations of greater speed and efficiency from citizens. Therefore, in a modern ironic twist, via less physical interaction, greater trust is hoped for and can be developed through greater efficiency of services in this way: for essentially, improved service is ideally what the public desires and of course deserves. So surely this is a way to build trust at one level and particularly so with a developing country such as ours where long lines and long waits and gaps in communication still typically remain the fare for government services.

However too, at present in Trinidad and Tobago, we are awash in questions about government trust. This stems from the governments’ initial statements about the global economic meltdown not having an impact on us, to later contrarily imploring us to tighten our belts, the current UDeCOTT (Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago) Commission of Enquiry and the findings so far revealed, the issue of whether our Minister of Finance acted in conflict of interest and whether she was outright dishonest to Parliament, and of course the still absence of an Integrity Committee to complement our Integrity legislation.

In building trust though we must not and never forget that truth should be intrinsic to it. After all, it is the con (confidence) artist who gains your trust, only to deceive you; so true trust cannot be said to exist without truth being in effect. In this age of greater technological connectedness we can only hope that profound substantive connectedness i.e. trust, grows in tandem with all the social networks we form. For with the marvels of technology these days, we have all seen how things and people can be virtually changed, created, and appear to be in places where they really aren’t. Students now too, to a greater degree and professional writers as well, despite all the information available via the web, appear to be resorting to increasing levels of plagiarism.

We all know the famous Abraham Lincoln quote:

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

This quote though, I believe, is only true as far as we are vigilant enough to make it so.

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