How do you get people to trust councils?

With increasing numbers of people’s minds turning towards May’s elections, now is a good time to dust off and update a post from 2008 about how people view their council…

Improving trust in local government is important, and can’t be done just by focusing on improving services: that’s the verdict of State of trust: How to build better relationships between councils and the public, a piece of research from the think-tank Demos and IDeA (the local government Improvement & Development Agency), published in 2008.

The report sees trust as underpinning a wide range of objectives:

Trust is one of the most important assets that a governing institution can posses. Its presence helps to foster democratic participation, economic success and public sector efficiency.

For example, if people don’t trust an institution, they are less likely to think taking part in elections is worthwhile. Trust in varying degrees is required for most economic transactions: do you trust the goods are any good? do you trust the payment won’t bounce? and so on. The more people trust an institution, the easier it is for the institution to get the public to play a productive role, such as by responding to planning applications so that well-informed decisions are made, or by reporting graffiti so that it can be removed quickly.

However, the report argues that relying on improving the quality of local government services is not enough in itself to improve trust in them. Well run councils will be more trusted than badly run ones, but that is not the whole story. Communicating clearly, and developing two-way dialogue with residents, is also needed, as is having decision-making processes that not only produce good results but are seen as going about their business in a fair way.

None of this suggests any radical policy departures from what good Liberal Democrat councillors have been doing for many years, though talking about trust is a concise way of bundling up many of the benefits that a devolved, liberal approach brings.

It is also a good way of testing policies against the often all too tempting siren calls from some council officers for brave and decisive decision-making, when what they really mean is ignoring the public and doing what the officers want. Yes, difficult decisions have to be taken sometimes, and yes, councillors shouldn’t dawdle over making decisions, but pausing to ask whether the decisions taken, and the processes being followed, are ones that will improve or damage trust in the council could save many a councillor from a bad choice.

It is also useful to be reminded how strongly people’s perceptions of the quality of a service are related to their knowledge of it: almost always more information brings better reputations. In particular, the less remote that people feel a council is, the better value for money they feel they get from their council tax.

Where the report is likely to get a more controversial reception amongst Liberal Democrats is in its rather uncritical attitudes towards executive mayors and cabinets. There are numerous ways of describing the motivations for the introduction of mayors and cabinets, and many of those are far from flattering, but the report rather meekly merely describes their introduction as being driven by a desire to improve trust in local government without giving any reference to the controversial genesis of these reforms. With both more powers given to local councils to choose their own structures and also referendums on the introduction of Mayors, the questions of which structure works best and why are once again very relevant.

The report also takes a rather anti-politics attitude towards the role of councillors, warning of those who damage a council’s reputation by constantly criticising it and saying that all councillors – in opposition or not – have a role to play in building up a council’s reputation without any real caveat or justification. Again, it takes one side of a heated debate without even apparently acknowledging that the other side exists, let alone addressing the counter-points. Is it really the job of opposition councillors to build up the council, or is it to hold the council to close scrutiny, using criticism to get improvements and offering the public a clear choice by presenting an alternative vision for how things should be done?

Finally, there is also tucked away within the report a morsel of hope for the overall standing of politics in the public’s eyes. Trust in doctors is currently at historically very high levels. Yet when you consider all the challenges that doctors face – such as the regular whipped up health scares that undermine confidence in modern medicine, the heavy media coverage of doctors who go bad or even kill, the pressures on their time and the restrictions on what health treatments they can prescribe – it would in fact be very easy to excuse away falling levels of trust in doctors. If despite all these hurdles, doctors have managed to improve trust, why shouldn’t those involved in politics be able to do the same?

* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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