Never Before Has Trust Mattered So Much
15 December 2016 at 9:02 am
The challenge for the not-for-profit sector in 2017 is to maintain and build trust, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie in his final article for the year.
2016 has been an amazing year. Not only did Australians elect a new Turnbull government, but we’ve had Brexit and Trump victories few anticipated.
For the Australian not-for-profit sector, perhaps the biggest announcement of the last 12 months was confirmation that the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) will continue to exist.
This long fought for policy shift by the government, driven partly by a recognition that the Senate would not support abolishing the ACNC, could not have come at a better time in Australia. Any measure that can increase public trust and confidence in charities and NFPs should be strongly encouraged.
There is increasing evidence that public trust and confidence in many of our institutions is at historically low levels. There is also a strong argument that loss of trust has informed many major events around the world in the last 12 months.
Essential Polling in the last month revealed that less than a third of Australians trust the current government to deliver in the core areas of a fair tax system, jobs and industrial relations, housing, education, health, climate change and the environment. The overwhelming majority of Australians have little trust or confidence in our government.
We are not alone in our lack of trust.The OECD has found a very significant loss of trust in governments around the world over the past decade. The average level of trust in government is now 40 per cent – in practice this means 60 per cent of people in OECD countries do not trust their governments.
Trust matters. As the OECD points out: “Trust is important for the success of a wide range of public policies that depend on behavioural responses from the public… necessary to increase the confidence of investors and consumers… essential for key economic activities, most notably finance… important for the success of many government policies, programs and regulations that depend on cooperation and compliance of citizens.”
I think even these very strong statements from the OECD underestimate the real impact of declining trust. In my experience, business and economic activity rely on trust, employment relies on trust, investment relies on trust, taking risks and innovating relies on a level of trust.
Over the past month, a lot of the public analysis of Trump, Brexit, even Pauline Hanson, have suggested that their support base is largely those left behind by globalisation, economic shifts in manufacturing and the automation of lower-skilled jobs. This may be true, but it is not the whole story. There have always been people left behind who were unhappy. These groups have often tended to vote for polarising candidates that create false divides so they can attack minorities while playing at being the champions of people outside the economic winners circle.
The loss of trust extends far beyond the economically marginalised. When Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros and Mark Zuckerberg joined with 20 other super-rich peers to put some of their own collective money into building better renewable energy options, they did so based on a shared view that the current system of waiting for government support and investment in renewables was not working. They recognised what many of us now increasingly accept as the new reality, governments are not so good at coming up with solutions, particularly solutions that put some of their more powerful constituents off side.
Our recent experience in Australia around renewable energy policy is a very good example of how to ensure people have less trust in governments. It seems the coal industry has more say about our energy policy than independent scientific analysis suggesting the whole community and the planet will benefit from pursuing a particular policy.
The OECD highlights six areas of government action that are critical to rebuilding trust:
- reliability – minimising uncertainty
- responsiveness – capacity of government supported services to meet needs
- openness – active engagement with citizens and good access to (government) information
- better regulation – important in many areas of community life including justice
- integrity and fairness – clean, fair and honest government
- inclusive policy making – policies that strengthen communities.
These are fine goals for government, public servants and even charities. Unfortunately, they are not seen as politically important, so they are unlikely to become goals in themselves.
I have often argued that charities and NFPs are an expression of our trust in each other. In many ways we are the custodians of trust, we trade in trust and through our collective actions, we build trust. Recent polling suggests levels of trust in charities have not declined significantly. Essential Polling has also indicated that most in our community (over 70 per cent) support the right for charities to advocate even on sensitive and controversial issues like the environment.
We can safely say that unlike governments, churches and many significant public institutions, charities still enjoy high levels of trust and confidence. We are seen to be pursuing purpose before profit or self-interest – and most of us are. This public perception reflects a lot of hard work from many charities and associated groups, including the ACNC.
What an exciting place to be. We are trusted, unlike so many others.This gives us extraordinary power to make positive changes, if we choose to exert our influence, to draw on our trust and to challenge governments, business and others to better serve our communities. Knowing how little the community trust governments and how much they trust charities should strengthen our arm, and enable us to advocate for our communities in even more effective ways.
This is our challenge in 2017 – maintain and build trust. If we continue to do this effectively, our capacity to make a real difference will be enhanced.
Trump, Brexit and others have shown that you can exploit the current lack of trust in governments. It is time our sector did the same, not to divide, but to unite.
As this is my final article for 2016, may I wish all Pro Bono Australia News readers a peaceful and enjoyable Christmas and New Year. I look forward to seeing many of you at the CCA Australia We Want forums throughout 2017.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono Australia News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.