How do organisations regain and retain people’s trust going forward? - Dr Alan Billings

Public trust and confidence in many institutions and public services has been eroding for some time. The banks, the BBC, Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the police, Parliament, local authorities – and many more – have all faced criticism for aspects of their conduct and culture.

How do we reverse this? How do these organisations regain and retain people’s trust going forward? Without that our life together will suffer immeasurably.

It’s something that as Police and Crime Commissioner I have had to give some time and thought to over the years. We have had our own local issues of trust and confidence, some of which became national issues.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

On reflection, it seems to me that there are two dimensions to trust and confidence. I call them the horizontal and the vertical. The first is well understood, the second is often overlooked; and we don’t always appreciate the critical relationship between the two.

A general view of Yorkshire County Cricket Club's Headingley Stadium in Leeds. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA WireA general view of Yorkshire County Cricket Club's Headingley Stadium in Leeds. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
A general view of Yorkshire County Cricket Club's Headingley Stadium in Leeds. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

The horizontal is the need to re-establish a good relationship with the public who are being served. When things have gone wrong there is often the need for an apology to be made for past wrongs.

This has to be an honest apology, by which we mean there has to be an acceptance of the unvarnished truth about culture or conduct, and a deep desire on the part of the organisation to change behaviours and practices for the better, the apology without the desire to change is dishonest and cynical.

An apology is a performative action designed to start to change a relationship that has gone sour or has broken down, but it becomes hollow if the organisation making the apology is not sincere and makes little effort to change – and sooner or later that becomes apparent.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

People want apologies for what happened in the past, but they also look beyond the apology at how the organisation subsequently behaves.

This is where the Metropolitan police are in something of a bind. They are finding themselves having to apologise not once but repeatedly for the failings of some officers as they work their way through a number of misconduct investigations.

The result is that each new apology begins to sound less convincing. It has to be done; but perhaps it has to be done with a form of words that is simpler rather than something more fulsome each time – ‘we are sorry’ rather than ‘deeply sincere’, ‘absolutely heartfelt’, ‘our thoughts go out to’. This all wears a little thin after a while.

The second dimension – the vertical – is sometimes overlooked but without it, the work of rebuilding public trust will falter and fail.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

As well as attending directly to the relationship with the public, we need to understand what happens to an organisation itself when wrongdoing is uncovered and admitted. Morale is affected.

People do not like the idea that they may be working for an organisation that has to apologise to the public it serves.

An organisation’s confidence in itself also has to be re-established, and that is often easier said than done.

It requires each individual to accept what has been uncovered and through their own life and work to be the light that is needed in dark times.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Unless this vertical dimension is also tackled, the apology will not be sufficiently grounded. Whatever policies and proposals are adopted, real change and progress will not be made.

Crucially, the restoration and retention of public trust and confidence will depend on both the vertical and the horizontal happening together.

And trust and confidence is never a destination. It is always a journey. It can always be disrupted or reversed.

Can it be done? I think we have seen the police service in South Yorkshire undertake that journey.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Driving through and between a number of South Yorkshire small towns and villages over the past few weeks I began to notice something I had not really thought about before – honesty boxes.

These are where people sell home grown produce leaving it displayed and unattended at the farm or garden gate with a suggested price and rely on the honesty of passing customers to put the right money in the box.

The produce included eggs, honey, vegetables and fruit. In every case there was no one to be seen. The sellers relied completely on the honesty of the customers. I imagine it was most helpful if people had the right money and did not need change.

What I find interesting is that I have never had anyone report thefts from honesty boxes as a crime. This seems surprising given the cost-of-living crisis and the fact that we have had thefts from food banks.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So do honesty boxes work? Are people honest? I have not heard anything to the contrary. Or is this just another case of under reported crime?

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.