Public Trust in Business and Government—A New Way Forward

by Brian Moriarty

Public trust in both business and in government has been low for decades. Since Gallup began measuring public trust in the professions in 1976, 19 percent of people on average have had a “very high” or “high” opinion of the honesty and ethics of business executives. Public trust in Congressmen has been even lower at an average of just 15 percent. Surprisingly, current low levels of trust do not adjust the result for recent scandals.

There is evidence to suggest that trust in these two institutions is related. The high water mark for both business and Congress in the Gallup poll (at 25 percent for both) came in the same year, 2001. Their scores for 2008 are also identical at 12 percent, an all-time-low for business executives.
All indications are that public trust in business and in government, both generally low, is in crisis. This is not surprising, given the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the subsequent global financial crisis which led to unprecedented levels of public money being used to support financial institutions and automakers.
The 2009 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 84 percent of the American public holds business responsible for causing the financial credit crisis and a slightly lower percentage (81 percent) holds the government and regulators responsible. How exactly are public trust in business and public trust in government related? The answer is found in another riddle.

Why Do People Trust Their Congressman But Distrust Congress?

People tend to trust their own representatives but distrust Congress as a whole.

In 1993, Suzanne Parker and Glenn Parker wrote an article for the Journal of Politics, aptly titled, “Why do we trust our congressman?,” that helped explain this seemingly paradoxical phenomenon. Eighty-four percent of the American public holds business responsible for causing the financial credit crisis, while 81 percent holds the government and regulators responsible.

They showed that while differing levels of personal contact (e.g., meeting a representative or speaking with her staff) directly impacts trust in that individual, this is insufficient to fully explain variations in constituents’ levels of trust in their representatives.

Parker and Parker’s study demonstrated that along with personal contact, one’s view of the political system—particularly its fairness and competence—directly impacts trust in their representative. In other words, when Congress allows no bid contracts this could increase constituents’ skepticism in their representative by impacting system trust.

This research showed that system trust is driven by “perceptions of waste, economic outlook, and socioeconomic status,” and that, “perceptions that the state and federal government are wasting tax dollars lead to lower levels of system trust.” The public does not view business or government as solely responsible for the financial system—and they expect these two great vehicles for social cooperation to collaborate efficiently in ways that serve their interests.

Parker and Parker’s findings, coupled with the survey data cited above, suggests that public trust in the financial system may directly impact trust in both business and government.
Current levels of public trust in the financial system are very low. The Chicago Booth/Kellogg Financial Trust Index from March 2009 indicates that only 19 percent of the U.S. public trusts the financial system.

With respect to public trust, it seems that business and government may well rise or fall together.

The Problem With System Trust

The issue with system trust is rooted in the fact that it largely results from shared opinions and narratives about how things work or don’t work in people’s interests.

Social science findings intimate that this aspect of system trust complicates progress. Research shows that, on average, when a person hears an opinion expressed three times she will believe it to be widely held.
Experiments by the psychologist Solomon Asch explain why this matters. Asch demonstrated that opinions perceived to be widespread shape how we see the world, even in cases where the incorrectness of these opinions should be obvious. By planting conspirators who would identify two straight lines of unequal lengths as equal, Asch was able to show that many people would follow the opinion of the crowd. In Asch’s lab, popular opinion defeated the basic rules of geometry 37 percent of the time.

What The Public Wants

So what can be done to build trust in government and business? The U.S. Postal Service—the most trusted federal agency every year in the Ponemon Institute’s survey—offers some clues.
First, the Postal Service almost always delivers. Second, there is little perceived waste in the postal system— you can send a letter across the country for just 44 cents. Third, people know the faces and names of their mail carriers. Fourth, there are harsh penalties for violating the sanctity of the mail. Lastly, violations are extremely rare because people believe in and respect the system.

Forging a new way forward, leaders in business and government must actively question their own narratives about both institutions. Open dialogue can help weed out false opinions and lead to action in the mutual interest of all parties.

If business and government leaders can work together to build confidence in the financial system, trust in business and government may well rise along with it.

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Brian Moriarty is Director at the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics and co-author of the report, The Dynamics of Public Trust in Business—New Opportunities for Leaders.

This article originally appeared in the Q2, 2009 issue of Ethisphere Magazine. It is republished here with permission.