“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” – Thomas Jefferson
In The Speed of Trust, author Stephen Covey notes that common to every relationship is one factor which, if removed, will destroy the most powerful government, the leading brand, the greatest friendship. That is trust – and it affects us all, all the time.
The federal sponsorship fiasco, the City of Toronto’s MFP computer leasing scandal, the HRDC boondoggle – there’s a crisis of trust in public institutions. As public servants, we’re charged with the responsibility of increasing our capacity in this area. An organization’s ability to build trust is the cornerstone of its successful relationships with its publics.
Kieron O’Hara writes in Trust From Socrates to Spin: “Trust is the major issue of the 21st century.” And it is generally on the decline in our society, according to 80% of those surveyed by the Centre for Ethical Orientation.
“The relationships out of which mature societies are constructed are changing, and that will clearly have an effect on trust,” O’Hara observes. “Relationships are partly constituted by trust, and partly help establish trust; trust both depends on, and helps to strengthen, other bonds in society…when we reflect on the series of social, political, economic and philosophical changes that have been occurring in the last few decades, we should begin to expect that conditions for placing trust might also be altering as part of that dynamic.”
Trust in the public sector
Public sector organizations are dependent on trust to achieve their mandates. Where there is greater trust, better decisions are made resulting in greater legitimacy in policy and more effective implementation. Ratepayers trust that government will act with the highest regard to public health, safety and prosperity – today and tomorrow.
Too often we have focused on individual misbehaviours rather than on the more complex determinants of trust. At the Regional Municipality of Halton, Regional Council and management have worked together to build an infrastructure that welcomes community input into decision-making, and measures and rewards ethical practices. This systemic approach to trustworthiness is reaping significant public policy advances while meeting public expectations on accountability, transparency and responsibility.
Engaging citizens in their local government is not new for Halton. We have always been dedicated to the open flow of information between government and the community; to transparency, accessibility and trustworthiness.
But the landscape has changed over the years. Today’s citizens are better educated about local government issues. They question the decisions of authorities and are more cynical. And they use technology to seek information and demand prompt yet thorough responses to their requests. To maintain successful and enduring relationships with residents and businesses, the Region must continue to nurture and sustain their trust.
At Halton, we’ve worked hard to reduce barriers among the public, elected officials and staff. We create opportunities for dialogue with our external stakeholders. We’ve developed formal systems and processes that encourage engagement and have resulted in a sense of shared responsibility and mutual understanding. With trust as the goal, we’ve set up the checks and balances that make it easy to do the right thing.
Make no mistake – building trust is hugely time consuming, and often messy, work that requires resources, skills, patience and understanding. It requires sharing information and power, mutual respect and a willingness to hear and consider other perspectives. It’s a reciprocal relationship and, in the end, an enormously satisfying way to operate.
Public consultation guidelines
Our approach to building trust is based on the International Association of Public Participation’s public consultation continuum:
Inform → Consult → Involve→ Collaborate→ Empower
In 2003, Halton launched its Guiding Principles for Public Consultation. The document (www.halton.ca) lists 16 protocols. Prepared by a committee of staff from each department and approved by Regional Council, it provides clear guiding principles to follow when planning or participating in public meetings or consultations.
Each of the 16 principles is supported by a clear definition explaining our commitment to the process. The principles include: value and encourage public involvement; share information and educate; timeliness; openness/two way communication; mutual respect/objectivity; responsiveness/feedback; transparency; and accountability.
Regional Council also supports Citizen Advisory Committees (CACs), which provide a vital opportunity for residents to interact with regional government. CACs have strengthened our communities by allowing citizens to bring their ideas and solutions to the table early on, to address the needs of the broader community. CACs provide regular forums for sharing information and giving and receiving feedback, and have played a role in many initiatives, including Regional Council’s 2006-2010 Strategic Plan, Halton’s Comprehensive Housing Strategy, and the development of a mutually acceptable approach to the construction of the Burloak Water Treatment Plant.
A commitment to two-way symmetrical communications underpins all of the Region’s communications. Much work is being done to build two-way dialogue, in which staff, Council and the public recognize their interdependence and seek mutually beneficial solutions. Methods include: focus groups, symposiums, town hall focus groups, public meetings, open space technology, employee surveys and charrettes (see Wikipedia for an explanation of this emerging technique).
The internet is a great example of two-way communication principles in practice, as well as a tool for building trust. To date, Halton Region has used its website to obtain input from the public on many projects including its Sustainable Halton plan, its Strategic Plan and its source separated organics waste program.
“Using social media such as blogs is a great way to obtain input from the public,” said Regional Chairman Gary Carr. “People are too busy to go to meetings and engage in traditional means of obtaining information. By providing an open-forum type opportunity for individuals to express opinions, it allows our residents to trust that we want their feedback, we want their opinion, and we want them to be engaged.”
By using the Region’s website and new forms of social media, the Region can practice greater transparency, provide quicker turn around on issues and continue conversing on critical aspects of public policy.
“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” -Socrates
Integrity is a core value: “We treat everyone with respect, honesty, fairness and trust.” We believe that trust is earned through action, leading by example and doing what we say we are going to do – all the time. It goes beyond formal consultative processes and is ingrained in leadership behaviours and measured and rewarded through performance management.
Every manager participates in a forma