"It is...happier to be sometimes cheated," wrote Samuel Johnson, "than not to trust". Yet fewer and fewer of us seem to agree. "Who do you trust?" the opinion pollsters routinely ask, but our answers are increasingly hesitant. In survey data for the 1950s, more than two-thirds of British people felt that most of their fellow citizens could be trusted. When the question was asked in the late 1990s, the ‘trusters’ had fallen to just 29 per cent of the population.
The erosion of trust, and the urgency of its restoration, has become a familiar lament of politicians and business leaders. Yet getting any analytical purchase on trust – how it arises, how it functions, and how it can meaningfully be measured – remains very difficult.
Arriving at a more robust understanding of trust has become a central problem for politics, as Onora O’Neill argued in her BBC Reith Lectures of 2002:
"Mistrust and suspicion", said Professor O’Neill, "have spread across all areas of life, and supposedly with good reason. Citizens, it is said, no longer trust governments, or politicians, or ministers, or the police, or the courts, or the prison service. Consumers, it is said, no longer trust business, especially big business, or their products. None of us, it is said, trusts banks, or insurers, or pension providers. Patients, it is said, no longer trust doctors, and in particular no longer trust hospitals or hospital consultants."
In a series of three seminars, Demos in partnership with Nationwide will explore the changing nature of trust in politics, business and society. The first will seek to chart the growth of the trust deficit and its implications for large organisations. The second will look at the rise of the ‘audit society’, and whether more rigorous forms of inspection and accountability have repaired or actually damaged trust. The third will ask how we should properly understand trust as a business asset across the public and private sector, and how it can best be cultivated and preserved.
In this paper, the authors take stock of the debate about trust in order to frame the context for the series as a whole. What is the evidence for a trust deficit? What are its causes? How should it be interpreted? And what can we do about it?