The road back to trusted institutions

Gatherings of global leaders, such as the G-7 or central bankers, show a desire to reverse declining trust in government and other institutions.

Group of Seven leaders and guests pose for the G7 family photo Aug. 25 in Biarritz, France.

When the world’s central bankers met this past weekend in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, they had one big thing on their minds: how to restore trust in their ability to use financial stimulus to prevent another crash in the world economy In France, meanwhile, leaders of the powerful Group of Seven leading industrial nations were trying to restore trust in their economic tools, from trade rules to taxation. The reason you did not read about major results from both of these gatherings only shows the enormity of their trust-building task.

Restoring trust in societal institutions is now the “world’s greatest challenge,” says Angel Gurría, head of the 36-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The causes lie mainly in the uncertainty and instability created by rapid globalization, disruption of social norms by digital devices, and uneven economic growth after the 2008 financial crisis. The OECD, a club of wealthy nations, has even issued guidelines on “trust measurement” for institutions. And it launched a Trustlab initiative to locate important drivers of trust, such as the integrity of officials and reliability in government services.

“It is essential to strengthen local integrity systems,” says Mr. Gurría. “Citizens’ levels of trust are often forged through public services, and more frequent and direct interactions with public institutions who think and act locally is likely to solidify trust.”

More people around the world have a low confidence in institutions to help them navigate a turbulent world, says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. His global communications firm conducts annual surveys of trust in 28 countries. The latest survey suggests people are increasingly seeking greater purpose in life than surviving or making money.

In the United States, a Pew survey released in July found about half of adults link a decline of trust among Americans to a belief that people are not as reliable as they used to be. This has spilled over to a decline of trust in the federal government. Nearly two-thirds of Americans have little or no confidence in elected officials. A similar number says the issue of ethics in government is as serious a problem for the country as drug addiction.

These trust hurdles are being addressed, as the weekend gatherings show. In fact, the Pew poll found some 84% of Americans believe it is possible to improve the level of confidence people have in the government. For many of those polled, the focus is on finding ways to turn local communities into laboratories for the kind of trust-building that will confront partisan tensions and overcome tribal divisions. It only takes the right mix of shared values and norms, such as personal integrity, institutional transparency, and fair administration of rule of law.

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