02 November 2020

Reviewing trust in leaders, experts and institutions: In preparation for action and renewing of trust as we approach the Winter

Chair: Mr Emerson Csorba

Many western countries are living through a deterioration in trust in political leaders, parties and in national and international institutions: this was the premise of a Ditchley conference in December 2019 and it was picked up again in a small group discussion at Ditchley on the evening of 2 November. What does it mean for citizens to lose trust in the institutions that currently underpin democracies? What have been the main sources of trust to emerge so far in the pandemic? Is trust really what we are trying to get at, or is it really something else - capacity, competence, knowledge, delivery, morality, mission?

The following points were made:

A decline in shame: Alongside a loss in trust has been a rise in shamelessness. That is, the brazen and deliberate use of false statements by some political leaders to disrupt the norms of public discourse. A lack of shame and lack of self-restraint were said to point to a prevailing moral vacuum that is now evident on social media, reflected for instance in consequence-free trolling that has the effect of putting people off from participating in public debate. 

Earning trust - delivery and competence: What happens when the basic infrastructure of everyday life is eroded by failures in basic delivery? Institutions such as the US Post Office, Federal Public Health agencies, the international rule of law and legal norms for example have been eroded, with low pay, low morale and shortening employment tenures with these public service organisations. We have lived through several decades in which public institutions have also been denigrated. Earning trust is a slow process and is urgently needed, but only in institutions that are trustworthy, i.e. necessary and deserving of our trust.

Constitutions, structures, frameworks: It is the constitutional and institutional frameworks that set the basis for trust and structure society. Swapping law for trust would be risky; reliance on friends and family over and above trusted institutions would be a mistake, even if the personal and particular are important sources of trust. Constitutions create legitimacy, but institutions must also change to reflect new social movements and new global challenges.

Some things are working well: The response to COVID-19 has revealed much that is positive: the rapid construction of Nightingale Hospitals; the high levels of trust in the NHS; the British Army; some traditional corporations; trust in university research (especially for vaccines); community responses and the commitment to common wearing of face masks.

Shared purpose and mission: The basis of trust is often found in a shared purpose and joint action. An institution such as the NHS works towards the shared and collective enterprise to care for us. Media institutions such as the BBC are now precarious. Communication is a huge wellspring both for increasing trust and dissembling the truth.  Consultation and the use of expertise is part of the creation of shared purpose.

Participants: Susie Alegre, specialist in international human rights law and public international law and barrister and associate tenant at Doughty Street Chambers; Emerson Csorba, Chief of Staff, The Ditchley Foundation; Anil Gomes, Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford, and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford; Liz Greenhalgh, Impact Lead, The Ditchley Foundation; Will Hutton, political economist, author and columnist, former CEO of The Work Foundation and former principal, Hertford College; Arwen Smit, Arwen Smit, author of Identity Reboot and Independent Expert of the Horizon 2020 Fund of the European Commission; Terri Taylor, J.D., strategy director for innovation and discovery at Lumina Foundation.

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.