January 17, 2017
The surprise election of Donald Trump as US President has left journalists scrambling for an explanation. One popular explanation focuses on the public’s low level of trust in public institutions – especially among the working and middle classes.
Royal Research Ship Boaty McBoatface was one submission in a contest held in early 2016 to choose the name for the British Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) new polar research vessel. NERC asked the public to submit names and to vote online for their favourite entry, hoping the contest would increase public interest in its work. Unfortunately, this plan backfired. When Boaty McBoatface turned out to be the most popular name by far, NERC rejected the name and opted for RRS Sir David Attenborough instead, thus earning widespread ridicule and the scorn of the Internet.
This otherwise humorous incident offers insight into the relationship between the public and public institutions. In this case, NERC asked the public to provide it with an “inspirational” name that caught “the spirit of scientific endeavour”. In response, a significant portion of the public used the contest as an opportunity to have a laugh.
Why do institutions often struggle to engage constructively with their publics? Answering this question requires understanding the role played by trust.
What is trust?
Every few years it seems the concept of trust gets rediscovered. Most recently, the rise of the ‘sharing economy’ has numerous commentators highlighting the critical role being played by trust among individuals as they share almost everything with strangers, from homes and rides to musical instruments.
While this (re)discovery of trust’s importance is generally a good thing, being the new buzzword threatens to drain it of meaning. So what is trust, exactly?
First, it’s a fusion of evidence and emotion that creates a form of belief with its own distinct characteristics. Critically, trust’s emotional basis makes it ‘sticky’, meaning that it’s harder to destroy than many other beliefs. Nonetheless, unlike purely emotional beliefs like faith, trust can eventually be undermined by empirical evidence.
Second, trust is specific. While individuals will often say “I trust you” (full stop), what they actually mean is “I trust you to do this“. Critically, exactly what I am trusting you to do is determined by the common understandings and assumptions shared by the two of us. Jane might trust her brother Jim to raise and care for her children should she die based on their shared family values – but she would never trust him to pick a good movie because she knows Jim has a terrible sense of humour.
With openness and more participatory governance fast becoming basic expectations for governments worldwide, policymakers are increasingly talking about the importance of governments “trusting their citizens” to help “co-create policy solutions”.
The importance of trust
We’ve long known that trust is critical to economic growth. Recently, with openness and more participatory governance fast becoming basic expectations for governments worldwide, policymakers are increasingly talking about the importance of governments
“trusting their citizens” to help “co-create policy solutions”. Successful examples of this “government-as-a-platform” paradigm can be seen in action as firms and citizens use government data to create valuable innovations like Google Maps, or even discover new planets orbiting distant stars.
So, what separates Boaty McBoatface from “citizen science”? The short answer is the quality of the relationship between the institution and the public.
In the case of the Planet Hunters project, astronomers used the Zooniverse, an online platform that enables researchers to recruit crowds of regular people to help with projects. At one level this looks similar to the Boaty McBoatface poll. But there are some critical differences. First, the relationship between NERC and participants in the poll was very shallow; the only thing participants had to do was go online and vote. Even the addition of a short project-specific tutorial, as is the case with the Zooniverse, helps to foster a set of shared understandings between the institution and the individual.
Second, Boaty McBoatface only surged ahead of other submissions once it went viral and attracted individuals with more interest in trolling than polar research. While this viral attention may have had benefits, it also reached audiences far outside NERC’s natural community and attracted participants who did not share the community’s defining assumptions and understandings.
In the Zooniverse, participation demands a higher level of commitment. Consequently, participants self-select and tend to already share some of a project’s ethos. By interacting more deeply with the project community, participants also absorb its shared understandings, thereby strengthening their relationship with the institution.
Lessons for government
Trust is a belief held by and among people. And governments, obviously, are institutions, not people. Nonetheless, because people tend to personalize their interactions with institutions by identifying them with specific people – e.g. the Prime Minister – individuals can still feel as though governments trust them. This is important because evidence suggests that one of the most effective ways to inspire people to be trustworthy is to tell them they are trusted.1
Importantly, however, this engagement also needs to go deeper than a simple naming contest. As has become clear, NERC conceived of its contest as a public relations stunt and did not have any plans for deepening its relationship with the public once it got their attention. If government wants the public to trust it, it needs to make sure that the key underpinnings of a trusting relationship are present, i.e. a positive and ongoing relationship built on shared understandings. Moreover, these understandings need to be consistent with, and capable of supporting, the specific form of trust the government is trying to generate. Basically, it requires sustained effort focused on community building over time.
Having launched a flurry of public consultations – 150 by one count – the federal government has certainly taken the first step towards building a more trusting relationship with the public. But trust requires more than simply asking for someone’s opinion once. The unenthusiastic public response to some of these consultations is perhaps a demonstration of the public’s skepticism as to their genuineness. Will the government respond by trying to overcome this skepticism by improving its consultative methods (e.g. by integrating new tools like citizens’ reference panels)? Or will the next few months reveal this flood of consultations to be Boaty McBoatface-esque public relations stunts? Only time will tell.
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Michael Crawford Urban
Jan 17, 2017
- For example, see Dovidio, J. Gaertner, S, Validzic, A. Matoka, K. Johnson, B. Frazier, S. 1997. “Extending the Benefits of Recategorization: Evaluations, Self-Disclosure, and Helping.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 33(4) 401-420. [↩]