Where’s the Trust?
The Tories want nothing more than the majority of voting citizens to trust them. Do people trust the fresh-faced Cameron/Osbourne duo to handle the economy? Will they trust that the pronouncements of a new “progressive conservatism” will not ring hollow? Can they trust that upon receiving the reigns of power, Cameron will have the magnanimity to immediately pass that power down the line to local governments?
Considering how central trust is for the Tories and their ambitions for power it was surprising to see that Cameron had it backwards in his article in last Tuesday’s Guardian, putting power before trust. According to Cameron, “if local government is both more powerful and more accountable, we can start to restore the trust that's been lost in our political system.”
However, the success of the localism agenda doesn’t just depend on the courage of national politicians to enact it. It also depends on citizens having a sufficient level of trust in local government to be motivated to engage in the process of decision-making for engagement is the lynchpin of localism’s success.
Cameron takes an overly rationalistic view of citizen engagement. For him it seems that engagement depends on nothing more than a reasonable certainty that one’s involvement will produce a favourable outcome, and that this perception of efficacy alone will build trust. But this neglects the emotional elements involved in trust. Decision-making and resource allocation is messy, often leaving many disappointed. Trust cannot be built through outcomes, but rather through fair and transparent processes that give citizens the confidence that even if the outcome doesn’t turn in their favour, their input was considered in a fair and transparent decision-making procedure.
Those invested in the localism agenda must begin to think of trust as a resource for local governments before the full devolution of power. Those local councils already rich in trust can draw down on this asset and will be more successful as devolution gathers steam.
Our research shows that local governments can already do a lot to increase trust. For instance, personal relationships between councillors and their constituents are essential. Cameron proposes elected mayors and referendums but neglects to consider the role local councillors can play in terms of increasing accountability and citizen contact with local decision-making, for example, by increasing the number of ‘patch walks’ they take. Trust lives and dies in three realms: decision-making, service provision and personal relationships. Local councillors can help bridge the gap between the decision-making and personal relationship spheres of trust.
While a move away from centralisation toward local discretion can be a good thing, the Government (whoever party it might be) must realize that granting more power alone to local government is not sufficient to build trust.
Click here to read more about Demos’ work on trust in local government in our ‘State of Trust’ pamphlet.