Michael Casey: Rehumanising our institutions

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Six out of 10 people tend to distrust something until they see evidence that it is trustworthy.
Six out of 10 people tend to distrust something until they see evidence that it is trustworthy.

Community distrust of institutions is high – but not irrevocably. Trust grows out of contact

The May federal election gave us a new government. It also provided a glimpse into what is shifting under the surface of everyday life in Australia.

Looming largest is the fall of the primary vote for the major parties and the rise in support for independents and the Greens. While a range of issues specific to this election certainly played a part, this looks like being part of a longer-term trend.

One factor among many in the rise of independents seems to be a closer connection to the local community.

Voting for a local who you might even know was important not only for the independents, but also for some major party candidates who held their seats against the trends.

Major party candidates are usually locals too, but there is clearly a disconnect with the major parties as institutions. Complicating this further are the very different expectations of what government is meant to do.

The climate issue captures this. Some want government to save the planet, others just want stable and affordable energy.

“Sixty-four per cent of Edelman’s respondents agreed that people in their own country ‘lack the ability to have constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on’.”

How well institutions deliver on expectations is an important part of maintaining trust. This is not just about providing a service efficiently. Institutions rely on connection, not transactions, and when they become too remote or too transactional, trust suffers.

While there is no going back to village life and simpler ways of doing things, the size and complexity of the world we have built for ourselves may be making it more difficult to generate and sustain trust.

Distrust is now the default for almost 60 per cent of people, according to the international Edelman Trust Barometer.

Six out of 10 people tend to distrust something until they see evidence that it is trustworthy. Taking things on trust unless the evidence suggests otherwise is now a minority position.

Distrust affects our willingness to debate and collaborate. Sixty-four per cent of Edelman’s respondents agreed that people in their own country now “lack the ability to have constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on”.

In 2018 – in the old days before COVID – ACU’s PM Glynn Institute conducted its first survey on hope, trust and belonging. One of the questions asked about how well institutions are working.

A situation where less than 50 per cent of respondents think democracy is working well is not one we want to see entrenched. What can be done? Photo: CNS/Max Rossi, Reuters
A situation where less than 50 per cent of respondents think democracy is working well is not one we want to see entrenched. What can be done? Photo: CNS/Max Rossi, Reuters

It was not a great report card. Only 49 per cent said Australia’s democracy is working well.

This was the highest percentage for all institutions, shared with the major charities.

Topping the “not working well” category were the banks (44 per cent) and the welfare system (37 per cent).

But it was mixed feelings about how institutions are working that was the striking feature of these results. One third had mixed feelings about how democracy is working, with the highest percentages being recorded for unions, the Christian churches, and other religious communities (from 47 to 51 per cent).

While a situation where less than 50 per cent think democracy is working well is not one we want to see entrenched, the relatively high percentages for mixed feelings suggest that people’s attitudes are not set in stone.

There is scope for institutions to win back trust. Let’s see what the 2022 PM Glynn Survey later this year shows.

“We look to institutions to help us make sense of complexity and navigate a way through it, but increasingly they are at sea like the rest of us.”

The failure of institutions to perform as they should, compounded in some instances by serious wrongdoing, obviously affects trust. Another important factor is complexity overload.

It is not just that we are flooded with information on every issue. We then have to sort out conflicting evidence, partisan interpretations, strong emotions and various pressures to conform to one view or another. Daunting is one word for it.

We look to institutions to help us make sense of complexity and navigate a way through it, but increasingly they are at sea like the rest of us. So people look instead to what they know and can count on.

Typically, this means those closest to us: family, friends, people and associations with whom we can have some sort of direct contact.

Part of complexity overload is the remote and impersonal nature of the large systems that make modern life possible. Trust requires connection, and beyond a certain distance it is very difficult to connect.

This probably means rethinking the size of our institutions and systems, bringing them closer to people, and back to a scale that is still efficient but more human. We need trust and connection to deal with complexity, and this is easier when contact is closer.