Earning trust and avoiding distrust in the public service

How 7 signals of trustworthiness can help

*by Hilary Sutcliffe

  • The problem: Governments are mistrusted more than ever.
  • Why it matters: Public trust — and trust within an organisation — is key to its success.
  • The solution: The 7 Signals of Trustworthiness realign trust within and towards an organisation.


Trust is big news. Trust, or more commonly the lack of it, between governments and citizens, between companies and their customers, between us all as individuals. “How do we get them to trust us?”, comes the plaintive cry. The conclusion reached that we need much more trust. Fast. Education and communication are invariably proposed as the answer to the problem of lack of trust. But rarely do these debates get around to reflecting on the roots of the problem. When they do, they find that it is quite often not about trust per se, but something else. About trustworthiness, or the lack of it.

A rare example in the context of public service is the 2020 Global Satisfaction with Democracy Survey which points to lack of trustworthiness being at the heart of lack of trust in governments. ‘If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies…it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy,” the report concludes. The list of issues it identifies includes “probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society.”

7 signals of trustworthiness

Trust is an outcome, not a message or a slogan.

The statistics in the report are taken from surveys into satisfaction or trust in governments or democracy. 2019 represented the highest level of democratic discontent since the research began in 1995. The rise has been especially sharp since 2005 and in the United States in particular, levels of dissatisfaction with democracy have risen by over a third of the population in one generation. They and others notably the UK, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia are now at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction.

Trust me on this
Philosopher and trust expert Baroness Onora O’Neill summarised this neatly: “The question of how to restore trust is on everyone’s lips. The answer is pretty obvious: first be trustworthy and then provide good evidence that you are trustworthy”.

This then begs the question — what is to be seen as trustworthy?

Trust is one of the most researched subjects in academia. Despite that, there is little agreement on what it is or what defines it — with psychologists, sociologists, behavioural scientists and others all providing different, sometimes conflicting perspectives. But in the midst of this seeming chaos, there is a surprising consensus on those things which elicit trust, both in a person-to-person context and institutional or social contexts.

The TIGTech Initiative, a collaboration between UK not-for-profit SocietyInside and the German applied sciences institute Fraunhofer Institute for Systems Innovation Research have distilled these into these 7 Signals of Trustworthiness. The seven signals are those things it is commonly agreed will help earn trust, and the lack of which paves the pathway to distrust.

Intent: Good intent, upheld through purpose process delivery and outcomes

Competence: Delivering against expectation, effectively, reliably, consistently, responsively

Respect: Seeing others as equals; listening to and taking seriously their concerns, views and right. Considering the potential impact of words and deeds on others

Integrity: Doing what you say you will do. Operating honestly, being accountable impartial and independent of vested interests

Openness: Being open, transparent and accessible in processes communications explanations and interactions

Inclusion: Being collaborative, inclusive, involving others

Fairness: Enshrining justice and equality in governance processes application enforcement and outcomes

You will recognise them. Though there may be different cultural interpretations, they are in some form or another at the heart of national and international justice systems, in most organisational values statements, culture change programmes, good governance frameworks, codes of conduct and more. And it is also pretty much common sense that if you do the opposite of these you won’t be trusted. Furthermore, our research made it very clear that these are not just abstract concepts or academic theories. These seven signals are deeply rooted in our individual and collective psychology and the fundamental ways our societies work and have evolved.

The magnificent seven
They are familiar almost to the point of banality. Perhaps this very familiarity may mean their importance can easily be underestimated and may explain why they are often overlooked?

In seeking to earn trust, trustworthy organisations will use them as ‘guides to live by’; aligning leadership, culture, decision-making, metrics and reward systems to embed them and signal internally and externally how seriously they are taken. To many others however, they will be more “hocus-pocus spells, bits of primitive word magic that are trying to make something true merely by incanting it.” This approach is where the seeds of distrust are sown. What is interesting about using trust as a framing for the type of internal reflection on these signals – rather than, say, values or good governance – is that it forces you to look outwards as the starting point.

Trust is an outcome, not a message or a slogan. It is the result of someone perceiving you as trustworthy. It’s also a bit like love and happiness: the more doggedly you pursue it for its own sake, the more elusive it may become. But trust, love and happiness have another thing in common. They are all more likely to come about as a result of attention to something greater than ourselves — the good of others. The root to being seen as trustworthy starts with devoting attention to someone other than yourself and something other than your own or your organisation’s goals and success.

*Hilary Sutcliffe is director of SocietyInside.

*This article first appeared on the apolitical.co website

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