Building trust or cleaning up the public realm?

Battle of Ideas festival 2013, Sunday 20 October, Barbican, London


The problem of collapsing trust has become all-pervasive. Many of society’s most treasured institutions, private and public, seem to have lost the faith of the public. Scandals have led many to question the integrity of the police, the Catholic Church, the banking system, parliament, newspapers, the BBC and the NHS. The responses to such crises now have a familiar script of their own: a public inquiry exposing institutional malaise, followed by swift calls for external regulation, tougher penalties, staff purges and ‘root-and-branch’ retraining. There have also been calls to protect whistleblowers and to ensure greater diversity at management level to guard against perceptions of cronyism.

While a bout of soul-searching is understandable following failures such as Mid-Staffs, however, the jury is out on how far such moves rebuild trust. External regulation is greeted with cynicism, provoking accusations of incompetence if the regulators are recruited from outside the profession (as in the NHS and police) and corruption if they are drawn from within (Libor). Self-regulation, meanwhile, is widely derided as, to quote Jeremy Paxman, akin to ‘the bloke down the pub telling you you’re sober enough to drive.’ For some, however, the crisis that engulfed safeguarding authorities over child abuse provides a salutary lesson of how efforts to restore trust can backfire: with ‘tainted’ senior staff replaced by inexperienced juniors and professional judgement eroded by bureaucratic exercises such as CRB checks. One doctor lamented, ‘every box ticked is a kindness lost’. More broadly, a concern with being seen to be whiter than white may be a distraction from the core work through which all institutions must ultimately win the public’s trust.

Does treating every individual as requiring constant scrutiny and supervision, and encouraging them to report on colleagues, risk undermining the professional ethos institutions draw their strength from? If a witchhunting dynamic is allowed to take hold – and those who seek to defend their reputations dismissed as arrogant troublemakers – are we in danger of driving anyone who doesn’t match up to a sanitised idea of the public servant out of our institutions? Do reasonable demands for accountability become too easily sacrificed to PR-friendly scapegoating and panicked reform? Or are such criticisms merely more buck-passing and resistance to much-needed change for failing organisations? Can anyone be trusted to restore the public’s faith in our institutions?

Lord Victor Adebowale

chief executive, Turning Point; non-executive director, NHS England; chancellor, Lincoln University

Paul Davies
partner, PwC

Alex Deane
managing director, FTI Consulting; Sky News regular; BBC Dateline London panellist; author Big Brother Watch: The state of civil liberties in modern Britain

Brendan O’Neill
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays

Jill Rutter
programme director, Institute for Government

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive