What makes a trustworthy person, or a trustworthy institution?

14/09/2012 § 1 Comment

I was listening to the news about the Hillsborough disaster earlier this week. 23 years ago over 90 people were killed and more than 700 injured at an FA Cup football match in Sheffield. The principal factors in the tragedy, it seems, were the state of the ground where the match was held (it badly needed new investment) and mistakes by police in handling the large crowd (it was a special match, that filled the ground). The scandal that has now come to light is that the police systematically altered evidence so as to hide any suggestion that they were at fault. They persuaded people that the main cause of the tragedy was the rowdy, unmanageable crowd, many of whom were drunk or had turned up without tickets.

We all make mistakes, don’t we? I certainly do, every day. But this doesn’t necessarily make me untrustworthy. What would make me untrustworthy is if I refuse to learn from my mistakes. Isn’t this the real crime in the Hillsborough case? The police may have been incompetent, in part due to the inexperience of a new Chief Constable who had little experience of managing such large crowds. But if they had admitted their mistakes and shown willingness to learn, an awful lot of pain and suffering would have been avoided and people would have moved on with their lives. It is very hard to blame someone who is honestly repentant and open to change.

The same happened with Richard Nixon. The break-in at the Watergate office was, no doubt, a scandal but what brought Nixon down was not that, but his attempts to cover up what happened. This is why people stopped trusting him.

For me, this helps explain why, in the UK at least, trust is gradually being eroded in our politicians, the media and other institutions. Many of us are aware that we are living in rapidly changing times (and not just because a new iPhone seems to appear every six months!). Technology is developing at break-neck speed, the world population continues to expand, political change is happening all around the world as new powers such as China and Brazil flex their muscles, the Arab world is in turmoil, the Euro is under threat (with unpredictable consequences for the global economy), there is the threat of resource scarcity, and even the climate is changing, more than it has since the last ice age. Yet our institutions cannot adjust to cope. They are too resistant to change, too inflexible. They ignore the evidence and try hard to pretend that nothing has really changed. How can we trust them?

The reason they cannot cope is that they were constructed in a different era, with a different mindset.  Hierarchical models, where everyone is obliged to look up for answers rather than looking to themselves and their peers, are not bad for building bridges and railways but rubbish at coping with fast moving, rapidly changing, complex situations where local, responsive decision-making is needed. If you are interested, there is a paper by Jacky Mallett here that explores the principles behind data networks and contributes to an understanding of why hierarchies are slow to change (basically because networks transmit information more efficiently than hierarchies).

It is going to be interesting to see how the police response to the Hillsborough report. Will they prove themselves ultimately trustworthy by making changes in response to what happened, or will they stick their heads in the sand and blame those have gone before them? The same goes for the other institutions. If they do open up and respond to the changing world, then they will prove trustworthy. If not, then we will all suffer the consequences.


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