Guest Blog from David Evans, Founder, The Campaign Company: The Trust Challenge

Posted on June 27, 2019 by David Evans.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

On EU Referendum Day three years ago, a conspiracy theory went viral. It was based on the idea that election officials would rub out votes if they were in pencil. Popularised by the #UseAPen hashtag, ‘Pencil-Gate’ occupied the afternoon of 23 June 2016 – with publicly-minded voters even turning up at polling stations with spare biros.

The episode was forgotten in the drama following the result. But this footnote in the Brexit story helped explain the surprise outcome better than many other hypotheses. Beneath the phenomena of ‘fake news’ lay deep issues, to do with the failure of engagement and falling confidence in leaders and public organisations. Despite some Remainers’ conviction that the only explanation was a gullible public had been lied to, the result was less ‘post truth’ than ‘post trust’.

The blows to public faith in institutions which have caused this range from the banking crisis to Grenfell, from Baby “P” to #MeToo and most recently the failure by politicians to deliver Brexit.

And as a recent audit of political engagement by the Hansard Society suggests, trust in institutions is continuing to fall. One outcome which particularly struck us was the fact that 32% say they do not want to be involved ‘at all’ in local decision-making. This reflects a rise of 10 percentage points in a year.

So, what does this mean for anyone who has to demonstrate the three components of good scrutiny and good governance in their roles – accountability, transparency and involvement? How do we re-engage those who have lost their trust?

The decline in trust may not be local government’s fault but councils are uniquely placed to address this challenge. They have more direct dialogue with communities than larger organisations and a better understanding of what makes their places tick and what their residents need.

Councils that have been successful in achieving and maintaining trust have gone out into the community and engaged with the most alienated. They have asked for input before they needed it – rather than letting things reach the stage of a messy dispute. They have spoken personally to those angry in a consultation – or have contacted and listened to those commenting underneath a council blog. Or else they have genuinely devolved power or placed confidence in others – be it residents’ groups, backbenchers, parish councils or frontline staff.

In other words, they have taken the gamble that more democracy, not less democracy, is the answer. And, in almost all cases this has paid off, at least in the long-term.

When The Campaign Company produced New Conversations – the LGA’s best practice guide to consultation and engagement – we worked with four pilot authorities to explore different ways for councils to re-build trust with their communities. One of those pilots, Staffordshire County Council, proactively recruited and used local community influencers to stimulate conversations about public services as a first step to increasing involvement in local decisions. ‘Influencers’ involved in this activity include barbers, hairdressers, school children, and front-line council staff. These influencers were instrumental in getting quick local insight on community safety to inform the county-wide Police and Crime Strategy Plan and also in establishing long-lasting networks and genuine channels of influence within communities.

Through strong consultation and good engagement, councils can put firmly behind us the sort of “tick-box” culture that leads people to feel ignored – and which spills over, in the long run, into things like #UseAPen. Only by residents genuinely understanding and inputting in decisions can trust be re-established. That’s the challenge that we need to overcome. ����