The global indices published since the start of the year are convincing evidence that trust is a valuable commodity and that public value is key to business prosperity, society wellbeing, and state stability. To be sure, by highlighting the lack of trust in various institutions, the overall decline of public information available to citizens, and the endemic corruption worldwide all these indices leave a bitter aftertaste. But they also show that it’s up to informed citizens to maintain pressure on the state, request participation, and fight ignorance.
In January 2018, the US think tank Heritage published its Index of Economic Freedom, which for over 20 years has been measuring the impact of free markets on societies. Launched in 1995, this index evaluates countries in the areas of the rule of law; government size; regulatory efficiency; and open markets. Heritage reminds us that we live in the most prosperous time in human history, where –at least in the countries they evaluate- “poverty, sickness, and ignorance are receding due in large part to the advance of economic freedom”. The index that covers 12 economic freedoms in 186 countries: property rights, judicial effectiveness, government integrity, tax burden, government spending, fiscal health, business freedom, labor freedom, monetary freedom, trade freedom, investment freedom, and financial freedom. Scores in these categories are averaged to create an overall score. Checking these scores over the years offers historical hindsight and the interactive website is a playful way to search for the countries or the freedom and behaviour we’re interested in. But apart from cross-country comparisons, the index mainly repeats the think-tank’s key message that economic freedom matters and that it is often linked to other fundamental freedoms.
It’s with the Open Budget Survey (OBS) that we start discussing what constitutes trust in governments and institutions worldwide. Launched in 2006, the Open Budget Survey is a comparative assessment of the three pillars of public budget accountability: transparency, oversight and public participation. The International Budget Partnership holds such assessment every other year following a very strict methodology. This year, the OBS evaluated 115 countries across six continents, adding 13 new countries to the survey since the previous round in 2015. The overall message is quite sad: the survey shows that over three-quarters of the countries studied fail to make sufficient budget information available to the public and to provide enough opportunities for the public to participate in the budget process. This, the NGO says, severely weakens trust between citizens and their governments, and eventually undermines democracy.
The 2018 Edelmann Trust Barometer also offers a gloomy picture with distrust remaining stagnant towards most institutions –business, governments, NGOs, and media. Such level of distrust, Richard Edelmann says, remains largely unchanged from last year with the exception of the United States, where trust towards government institutions, but also towards the media, business, and NGOs seems to have drastically dropped.
Trust business as an agent of change
That distrust is widespread around the world is certainly not news. But what the Edelmann Trust Barometer confirms is that business is now expected to be an agent of change. The survey shows that 64 percent of the respondents believe any company can take actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates. The Barometer also shows that nearly two-thirds of respondents say they want CEOs to take the lead on policy change instead of waiting for government, which now ranks significantly below business in trust in 20 markets: ”Building trust (69 percent) is now the No. 1 job for CEOs, surpassing producing high-quality products and services (68 percent)”, an excellent news for public value worldwide.
Transparency International‘s latest Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which came out today, shows once again that corruption is inherent in virtually all countries of the world. Here again, readers are invited to check their own country and appreciate whether it is making progress towards international standards or their own expectations. The CPI is a composite index based on 13 indices published or designed by Western experts in compliance, finance, access to information, or the rule of law. Each of these indices is based on its specific methodology and offers interesting insights. By gathering them, Transparency International offers a unique index of perception of the state of corruption worldwide, something that we should also consider as a measurement of trust.
One often hears that perception can be biased. It is not rare to meet government officials explaining at length the structural reforms they have adopted in their own country and the discrepancy they see with various indices, including the CPI. They tend to believe that experts react following clichés they have built over years, not necessarily after thorough investigation of the newest developments in each country. Maybe. But against a background where trust towards government institutions keeps falling, international standards remain an important ballast. And indices remain a useful tool for citizens who care about being informed and building their trust on facts.
Trust has to be earned and maintained by each of us in an active –not passive- mode. A government that asks its population to trust it more, must deserve that trust. It must demonstrate integrity, i.e. transparency, accountability and participation. To increase trust and transparency, it can rely on participation and open up. But then, every one of us has a role to play in participating and understanding that our collective interest is in our own interest. Trust is a valuable commodity. And it always takes two to trust.