Is public trust dead in Britain?

Everywhere you turn, a dominant narrative has taken hold: trust is in a state of crisis. It has become a fearful meme of our times.

Global communications firm Edelman’s annual trust barometer in January 2017 revealed that trust in all four major institutions – government, the media, business and NGOs – is at an all-time historic low. Other various opinion polls including Pew, Gallup and Ipsos, are all telling the same sad story.

It leads to a question I get asked, as a trust expert, everywhere I go, by the institutions who’ve haemorrhaged the most trust – banks, the media, governments, charities, the public sector, businesses. They’re anxious to know: how do we regain trust?

I think it’s the wrong question to be asking because it puts the onus on the customer or voter to change their behaviour, and trust them again.

The real onus could be on the institutions themselves: how can they really change to become more trustworthy? And how can they adapt to a digital age of ‘distributed trust’?

The research for my upcoming book, Who Can You Trust? kept pointing to the same conclusion: institutional trust, taken on faith, kept in the hands of a few and operating behind closed doors, was simply not designed for the digital age.

A loss of trust amounts to a lack of faith and confidence in ‘the system’ itself. What should we believe in if the system has failed us? We begin to fear what else can go wrong.

This creates a trust vacuum: who or what can be relied upon? What other shortcomings might lurk in these flawed systems and institutions? Concerning questions get asked and conclusions made, such as Michael Gove infamously declaring “people in this country have had enough of experts” during a Sky interview for the Brexit campaign.

This vacuum is dangerous. It gets filled with conspiracy theories, comforting biases, unfounded accusations and sleights of hand. And becomes fertile ground for people like Gove and President Trump to manipulate feelings of fear, anger or fatigue and pit them as the opposite of facts, expertise and institutional trust. It’s a false binary.

In vacuums like this, and buried within the hyperbole of a trust ‘crisis’, my concern is that it can breed fear, suspicion and disenchantment, like a fast-spreading deadly virus. It means we become less interested in the remedies, and more caught up in the drama of the crisis. The real risk isn’t rebuilding trust, but who we give it away to in the first place - and whether they’re worthy of it.

UK’s biggest recent trust breaches

The depth of this crisis runs deep enough for us to ask if institutions across all sectors are even serving their purpose to society any more. And it’s easy to see why.

After the Grenfell fire, already frail trust in the public sector collapsed. It could take a generation to recover. Social housing residents were ignored in London’s richest borough; their warnings dismissed, and their concerns sidelined even by new council chiefs who, by their own admission, had never set foot in a high-rise flat. No wonder ordinary residents feel disillusioned by the privileged elite in power.  

Charities, too, face pressing trust questions in the wake of the Kids’ Company collapse. The government was bankrolling a charity which, it’s alleged, gave cash handouts to kids (who spent up on drink and drugs), claimed to help 15,000 kids but only handed 2,000 to local authorities, and paid LSE for a report which commended its CEO, Camila Batmanghelidjh. Here’s why people question ‘experts.’ Batmanghelidjh allegedly used charity funds to pay £28,000-a-year private school fees of her chauffeur’s daughter.

With the NHS data breach, more than 500,000 different documents relating to patients’ diagnoses and treatment were kept in a warehouse over five years instead of being delivered to GP surgeries across England. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was accused of a cover up.

Keeping perspective

When probing questions arise about who we can trust with our personal data, with our charitable donations and even with our safety in our own homes, it’s understandable the debate gets heated and emotional.  

But this isn’t the age of distrust: far from it. Trust has shifted direction: rather than mainly flowing upwards to gatekeepers, referees, regulators and authorities. It now flows horizontally to peers, neighbours, strangers and in other instances to algorithms and bots. I call this the era of distributed trust

Institutions can reinvent their design and their systems to reflect this, but they must first accept they need to, by asking the right question: not how-to re-gain trust, but how to build it as a newly designed institution, fit for the digital age. And that starts with ensuring they’re designed to work for the people they serve, not the incumbent system.  

The new rules are applicable to every sector: you can no longer operate in a way that’s opaque, top-down, linear and permission-driven. Organisations that are genuinely open, accountable and inclusive, and make use of the distributed trust of their users, voters, customers, donors and social housing residents will earn trust.

Where I predict we’ll end up, is with more trust flowing in all directions, but less trustworthiness of those previous authorities who can no longer hide behind the bureaucracy that protected them in the former era. Our most precious asset, trust, will finally be owned by the many, not the few.

Rachel launched Who Can you Trust at a sold-out event, Trust: Playing by new rules at Nesta on Thursday 28 September 2017.

Who Can you Trust? is published by Penguin Books.


Rachel Botsman

Rachel Botsman is a world-renowned expert on an explosive new era of trust and technology. She is an award-winning author, speaker and University of Oxford lecturer and has contributed…