For the people
14 May 2020 at 8:29 am
The past six months have demonstrated that the shortest route to greater trust is pursuing common good, not sectional interests – this is true for charities and government, writes David Crosbie.
Something quite remarkable has happened to governments in the last few months. In many countries, many jurisdictions, governments have been governing in the interests of the broader community. Consequently, public trust in governments around the world has suddenly jumped to record highs.
Six months ago, the chiefs of rural fire services and state premiers were shouldering the load of leadership as Australia faced unprecedented disaster. The extreme bushfires were predicted, and yet Australia was not even close to being adequately prepared. Compounding the sense of frustration was that most people understood climate change was a contributing factor to the bushfire crisis, yet the federal government kept playing word games and obfuscating about their lack of policies and action to meaningfully contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gases.
The size and scale of loss through the bushfires was almost unimaginable. For what seemed like many weeks, millions choked on smoke and many became marooned in devastated communities with a seemingly impotent government struggling to find a way forward.
The prime minister was publicly jeered. People refused to shake his hand. Very few people saw the government as being there for them, particularly those in need of urgent support. While the federal government fought to preserve a budget surplus, it was perceived as pandering to fossil fuel and other business interests.
A survey by the Australian National University found trust in government had reached its lowest level on record, with just one-in-four Australians saying they had confidence in their political leaders and institutions. Professor Ian MacAllister, who led the research said: “In one of the most worrying findings from our study, a little over one-in-10 Australians, 12 per cent, believe the government is run for ‘all the people’. In contrast more than half, 56 per cent, say government is run for a ‘few big interests’.”
And then along came COVID-19, a pandemic threatening the lives of people around the world. The only way to reduce the spread of disease and ensure the least impact on health, wellbeing and the economy was to implement preventative health measures, restrict personal contact and contain any outbreaks.
The story from this point on is about many governments acting to save lives, to prevent major health costs, and to enable the economy to recover once the pandemic was controlled to a manageable level.
In mid-April this year, the Essential Poll found an unprecedented increase in levels of trust in Australian governments. Scott Morrison trailed Anthony Albanese as preferred prime minister in January registering only 36 per cent support, but four months later he had a 50 per cent approval compared to 25 per cent for the opposition leader – a remarkable 28 per cent turnaround in just three months.
The international Edelman Trust Barometer update published last week shows that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, government trust surged 11 points to an all-time high of 65 per cent, making it “the most trusted institution for the first time in our 20 years of study”.
These figures show that when governments act in the interests of their constituency and put in place policies to protect people and enhance their communities, there is an immediate positive response. We want to trust our governments.
Usually we would expect trust in charities to rise during a crisis. Charities are often at the front line of a crisis, and there have been many stories about the good works of charities in helping those in need during the bushfires and pandemic.
However, unlike governments, there has not been a significant rise in the levels of trust in charities over the past six months. The Edelman Trust Barometer found a modest 4 per cent increase, while the Essential report found a similar 5 per cent increase, both positive, but less than the unprecedented rises in other institutions including media, governments, and experts.
I think there are three main reasons for this finding:
Firstly, levels of trust in charities are relatively high and stable. Unlike some other institutions, including governments where levels of trust are more likely to fluctuate, charities have been consistently rated as being worthy of trust by around 50 per cent of the population, with some variations, for the last five years.
Secondly, there has been some negative media in recent times against charities. It is not unusual in Australia or around the world for charities to become a target of post-crisis anger when recovery proves more difficult and time consuming than many think it should be. This has been the case in relation to bushfires in Australia.
Finally, there has been limited positive campaigning to promote the value of charities to communities in a crisis and beyond. Some individual charities have been able to actively promote their work, but most have not, and there is no major overarching campaign.
These recent findings underline how important it is for any government seeking to build trust to be perceived as serving more than the vested interests of the most powerful.
Most of us understand that charities trade in trust. We rely on trust to enable us to engage with our communities, and we ask for trust in seeking income from governments and donors.
The past six months has demonstrated that the shortest route to greater trust is pursuing common good, not sectional interests.
For charities to adopt this approach means looking beyond the promotion of their own programs and services, and identifying how they can and do add value to the broader community.
As we move into a post COVID-19 retraction of government expenditure and an economic recession, the capacity to demonstrate the value charities provide our communities may well be the most critical factor in determining how vulnerable we are.
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 eight 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 News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.