Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On trust.

I want to lay some things out about the recent "scandal" regarding MPs' unwillingness to allow the auditor-general to perform a full audit (of some specific kind; the details of that unfortunately elude me). I had hoped this would simply go away, but the story seems to have legs. I'm not claiming this as anything other than a first word, by the way: but I think it cuts to the heart of a lot of dissatisfaction with government, which seems to be fueling this particular outcry.

The idea behind monitoring funding seems to be based on notions of accountability and transparency. Accountability I take literally: to be held to account by others. You are accountable insofar as you can be required to give an account to someone else for what you have done. Transparency I take to mean something like being visible to outside gaze. This should also be taken pretty literally, I think: transparency in the relevant sense means that people outside the system can view how the system works. Revealing funding, then, is supposed to be a way to hold MPs to account and to make the workings of the House (and Parliament generally, I suppose) more visible to outsiders -- i.e., the citizenry in general.

That's the argument as I see it. I think it's badly mistaken, though.

The problem is that accountability relies on trust. We hold people to account because we trust them to do certain things for us. If we didn't put trust in people, we wouldn't bother holding them to account -- indeed, we probably couldn't, in any meaningful sense. Similarly, we hold people to account because we have trusted them and we expect them to fulfill their end of that trusting relationship. This applies to government in pretty obvious ways. In the Canadian and British systems, government is based on the principle of responsible government. I think this makes the connections clear -- government is supposed to be responsible, we trust the government, we hold the government to account because we entrust them with responsibilities. (Compare this to the American system, founded on the principle of checks and balances. This implies that government is not to be trusted -- government is to be limited, curtailed, and constantly watched. If that's your view of the ideal government, then the rest of this isn't meant for you.) This means, though, that if we can't trust the government, all the accountability measures in the world are really beside the point -- the core issue, the inability to trust government, remains.

Transparency works on something like the opposite point: on a kind of distrust. We try to monitor people, see all processes, because we don't trust them. Think, for example, of public sector employees broadly. There's an annual ritual we go through where public sector salary data are released, and there's a minor feeding frenzy over the handful making six-figure salaries -- with no question as to whether their training, expertise, etc. justify the salary (in contrast with the seven-plus-figure salaries earned in the private sector for doing work of far less importance). In this case, transparency measures are put in place because we don't trust public workers -- we force them to be transparent as an expression of that very distrust. Regardless of whether we should trust public sector workers, it's pretty clear that there's broad distrust of everyone in the sector. (Again, compare to the private sector here; I think it's pretty instructive.) We might also think of modifications occasionally proposed -- and occasionally implement -- to welfare systems, whereby recipients have to display all their expenditures of received monies. Again, it's an indication of distrust. Those horrible little poor people can't be relied upon to manage their own affairs, so someone has to keep an eye out to be sure things are being done correctly.

So, if we're looking to make government more transparent, that seems a marker of the fact that we don't trust government. If we're looking for government to be accountable, then that shows that we aspire to trust government -- to be able to have them be responsible as we ideally want them to be. These imply, I think, that we need to focus directly on that core problem: we need to repair trust in government. This doesn't mean we introduce accountability measures (those exist when we already trust), nor that we introduce transparency measures (those exist when we don't trust). In fact, if we could trust government, then accountability and transparency measures would be offensive. Instead, what follows is that we must face the need to repair the failings of basic governmental structures. The unresponsiveness to constituents rather than party bosses, for example. Or the keeping of promises. Or of fair and honest dealing with the public. Or of putting the public first rather than career goals. Fix the system so that trustworthy people are in positions of trust and can be trusted and then this cluster of accountability/transparency problems will dissipate.

The corollary to this, interestingly, is that in order to be able to trust government, the public needs to give something as well. Trust is a reflexive relation, after all: for trust to exist, both sides have to be trusting. (Otherwise we end up with some sort of dependency rather than full-fledged trust. Think of a romantic relationship where one partner is constantly suspicious and the other never so. I take this as a case of dependence -- the latter on the former -- rather than genuine trust.) So, if we put people in place who can be trusted, we must then trust them. We don't get to monitor them constantly. We only get involved if we think that there's something odd going on -- that is, that our trust has been misplaced. Permanent measures of accountability and transparency would thus be seriously misguided.

I think that this is what's wrong with the claims for monitoring funding, then: first, it ignores the real problem of trust; and, second, it will actually make the problem worse by leaving us unable to forge the sort of trust that we seem to be really searching for.


Charles Green said...

Good on you, Adam. That is one of the more perceptive pieces on trust I've read recently. Let me offer my own learnings to help point out possible links of similar interpretation.

Most talk of trust is about 'trust,' as if there were no difference between trusting, being trusted, and trust. As you note, of course there is a difference.

To trust is a verb; to be trusted (i.e. deemed trustworthy) is more of an adjectival use, a characteristic which attracts people. And properly understood, trust is the result of the former two getting together.

I think you're also right, that while asymmetrical, trusting and being trustworthy are integrally inter-related. You can't really continue to trust someone who isn't trustworthy, yet ironically one of the best ways to get someone to be trustworthy is to trust them.

I'm not entirely sure I agree with you about accountability, I agree with you more about transparency, but I certainly agree with your conclusion: if anything is to be done about trust in government, it can't be done mechanically or on a one-sided basis by the citizenry.

There has to be some sense of, for lack of a better term, moral engagement on the part of those doing the governing; some commitment to the relationship we all have with each other, which transcends an ability to source money and form alliances. That sort of thing is not much in evidence lately.

Your conclusion begs a really big question I'd love to hear you address: how do we get there?

My quick answer is not by transparency, or restrictions, or enforcement, but by public shaming: the calling out of people to re-surface their moral obligations. That approach isn't as simplistic and crazy as it might sound, it's the essence of a lot of political demonstrations, the Daily Show uses it to great effect, and so do most of the press.

What do you think?

And thanks for a fine post.

ADHR said...

Thanks for the comments. I think public shaming is one possibility, but I'm not sure it's a good one in all cases. I worry that the risk of public shaming is partly to blame for the unwillingness of public officials -- not just in government, but in the bureaucracy as well -- to be open and sincere with the citizenry. I see it as something of a nuclear option -- when nothing else can keep an official on track, then resort to this.

That said, there are some more structural changes which might help. One would be expanding the size of the legislature, a necessary consequence of shifting from a first-past-the-post/single-member plurality system to a system of proportional representation. Increasing the number of representatives will make it more difficult for party leaders to exercise rigid control over the backbenchers; it would also give the party rank-and-file more opportunities to get into positions of power, replacing those who can no longer be trusted.

Another structural change that could be introduced (more of a Canadian concern than an American one) is eliminating the monarchy. Right now, the head of state in Canada is an appointed representative of a person who has inherited their position. As the examples of India and Ireland suggest, eliminating the monarchy creates another level of responsive government which can keep legislators from being tempted by excessive power.

Other possibilities include recall legislation and open primaries, neither of which exist in Canada, as well as limiting the monies that can be spent on a campaign (which would keep political figures from being excessively beholden to persons other than their constituents).

undergroundman said...

I don't see how accountability requires trust. Accountability relies on the enforcement of rules. For rules to be enforced, there does not need to be any trust - trust is a feeling, enforcement is an action. We can certainly hold people to account without trust, and in fact I would expect it's more likely when there isn't trust.

I understand that in theory you might say we put 'trust' in people when they are elected to political positions, but it's a very guarded sort of 'trust, but verify' sort of thing. Transparency is the key to verification, and I think you'll see performance and honesty increase with transparency. So I don't understand at all that sentence where you say "Permanent measures of accountability and transparency would thus be seriously misguided".

By the way, comparing to the private sector: almost every area of the private sector is watched by government workers. We do not trust the private sector. However, who watches the government workers - who watches the watchers? There are articles advocating that government bureaucrats be liable for their professional liabilities, the way that most professionals are. When I think about things like the late financial crisis and BP oil spill and the terrific negligence involved in both these cases, I have to say it doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

There are also likely deeper and darker institutional issues going on in regulation, including political sway over the rank-and-file careerist, motivation issues, talent flight (brain drain), etc. Plus, it's damn hard to be tough on companies when you deal with them all the time and hardly see a consumer.

ADHR said...

Well, first, I think that definition of accountability is question-begging. The point at issue is whether accountability relies on enforcing rules, which could be done without trusting, or not. To define accountability as requiring rule enforcement would just presume my point false.

That said, I don't agree that trust is a feeling. I think trust is a kind of relationship. We trust people insofar as we impose certain expectations on their behaviour, and they live up to those expectations. If we don't actually trust someone who we give responsibilities to -- we demand things like transparency in their conduct -- then it seems like we're missing the point. That's a sense in which accountability and transparency measures are misguided -- they miss the point. The real problem is you've given responsibilities to people you shouldn't, i.e., people you don't really have this trusting relationship with. So, you're locked into a kind of practical contradiction, which needs resolution rather than papering over.

By analogy, consider mandatory drug testing for people on welfare. Welfare is given to people with an expectation that they will use it until no longer necessary. Mandatory drug testing policies come into play when that expectation is violated -- but the real problem is the violation of the expectation that people will only use welfare until it's no longer necessary. And that expectation is violated because of, at least, a combination of the inadequacy of welfare payments to meet a minimum standard of living, bizarre welfare regulations (in Ontario, for example, income is deducted from welfare payments such that it makes no sense financially to take a minimum wage job rather than welfare), and a failure of the labour market to provide reasonable alternatives. But rather than dealing with the real problem -- the violation of our expectation and thus our inability to trust -- the policy is introduced to try to paper over it and pretend the real problem doesn't exist.

I think your later comments may expose a difference between the American and Canadian bureaucracies. In our system, the bureaucracy is directly responsible to a Minister, who is directly responsible to Parliament. If a bureaucrat screws up, it's the Minister's job to deal with it; and the Minister who doesn't deal with it gets raked over the coals in Parliament. I'm not sure exactly how the bureaucracy differs in the US, but it sounds like they have more autonomy -- there's no direct oversight in order to deal with violations of standards of conduct. That said, though, the "deeper and darker" issues look like they are solvable if we can get people into the bureaucracy who are genuinely trustworthy.

undergroundman said...

If there's little to no transparency, how can we determine whether we should trust someone or not?

It sounds like the Canadian and American systems are similar. The chief executive usually appoints these officials (sometimes they are elected independently). The careerists are often required to toe the line of the executives, sometimes even in cases where careerists are highly-trained professionals such as scientists with different opinions of their own.

The careerists, who effactuate the mission of the agency, may be subject to oversight ranging from nothing, to some politically-based pushing by their executive, to some close reviews every once in a while in the form an internal operational audit.

It's just a dysfunctional system in most places, and certainly there should be much more transparency and accountability. Depending on the average IQ and civic interest of the citizenry, it might even be helpful to have the extra transparency.

Anyway, yeah - I'm deeply involved in some fairly powerful public institutions and I certainly feel like I would do a better job if there was more transparency. As it is, it's easy to feel that your executives don't really want you to be doing a good job, particularly if there are political implications to the regulatory work involved (e.g., enforcing pollution regulations "hurts business").

Part of this gets to the way that many regulatory agencies are tied inextricably to a single person, the chief executive - who may be good in some ways and bad in others, or might be bad in all ways but the other choice is even worse. Which gets to the preference-based voting systems which we've discussed already.