Trust: Why it is important in the public policy process and ways to reverse its erosion

August 5, 2014
Denise Mullen

There are lots of conversations these days about trust or the lack of it, particularly around the development of natural resources but also applying to business generally. But what exactly is trust? Why is it important to business and government?

Humans are involved in a constant moment-to-moment exchange…to give and receive reciprocally. It is a foundational element of all business transactions, and also the basis of all human connection and community. Whether we receive money for goods and services or open ourselves up to a conversation with a stranger, we part with something in return for something deemed equivalent. All exchanges are done without having full knowledge or necessarily understanding the intent of the exchanging party or the things they are offering.

Trust is essential to all exchanges. Trust itself is linked to judgements of risk and is based on social bonds and shared identities. In fact, trust and risk are two sides of the same coin. Trust is also key to our willingness to defer to authorities. In general, people will defer to and follow those with decision making responsibilities only if they regard them as an “authority” who has earned (and works to keep) trust. If we trust the motives of an “authority” we are more likely to see them has acting fairly and to consider them legitimate when they make decisions. We are then more likely to accept those decisions, even if we disagree with them.

Unfortunately, trust in business and government is at all-time low globally[1]. In the scheme of things and perhaps counterintuitively, business is doing better than governments and Canada is doing better than many other countries. In general, the moderate voices of reason have been a casualty of eroded trust, which has led to polarized debates about goodness and rightness. This is evident in BC in many issues involving the natural resources sector.

What can we do to reverse the erosion of trust and strengthen the integrity and credibility of the public policy process?

  • Let’s start by not confusing consensus with trust. A high level of consensus/agreement is something we strive for, but it is not essential to either trust or sound decision making.
  • Let’s include the facts and evidence but work harder at full context thinking in order to help understand, evaluate and accept different points of view.
  • Let’s do a better job of fairly weighing risk and benefits. There is no such thing as a zero risk; this needs to be accepted as part of the decision-making and policy process.
  • Let’s acknowledge competence no matter where it exists; where it is lacking, we should deliberately build capacity.
  • Let’s give more attention to analysis which takes effort and time and be less focused on and guided by "sound bites”.
  • Let's not confuse often raucous town-hall-style meetings with effective decision-making – they are not the same thing.

[1] 2014 Edleman Trust Barometer,

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