It’s like a bad breakup. The trust is gone, and the British public is falling out of love with its major institutions.
The media, the security services, government, charities, big business, the banking industry – surveys show that public confidence in all of them has waned over the past few years, as stories of misconduct and mismanagement have hit the headlines.
This increase in scepticism is not a purely British phenomenon, either. The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer points to an ‘evaporation of trust’ in institutions and leaders worldwide. Today, it seems, we’re far more likely to trust advice from a friend, a family member or someone from our online network over something a ‘figure of authority’ tells us.
So, where exactly did our major institutions go so wrong? What – or who – is threatening to take their place?
Let’s take a look at three examples: government, and the charity and banking sectors.
More bad news for politicians: a 2015 Ipsos Mori poll found they’re right at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to public trust, ranking lower than bankers, estate agents and journalists.
In truth, the British public has always had a healthy degree of cynicism when it comes to party politics. Back in 1986, a British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey found only 38 per cent of respondents said they trusted governments “to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party”. That the figure has now declined to 18 per cent is unsurprising, given the raft of political scandals and broken promises of recent years.
Today, it seems, we’re far more likely to trust advice from a friend, a family member or someone from our online network - Highlight to share -
Interestingly, though, despite a serious decline in political party membership and voter turnout – especially amongst the young – the public is far from politically disengaged (consider Brexit). While BSA figures show that in 1986, 29 per cent of people said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of interest in politics, the most recent figure is higher, at 36 per cent.
The difference between 1986 and 2016 is in the way in which we’re expressing those political interests. Millennials in particular are engaging in new, mostly online-based forms of political activism: checking websites such as Ethicalconsumer to find out which brands and companies to boycott; joining local community groups; signing online petitions via 38 Degrees and change.org, or launching their own viral campaigns.
It’s not all bad
A large proportion of the electorate may be using alternative channels and participating on an ad-hoc basis, focusing on individual issues that affect their everyday lives or futures, but they are still attempting to influence political decision making. The government should seize on that and find creative new ways to engage digitally with the public, using the internet not only to pass on information, but to encourage feedback, input into policy decisions and debate, and to shine a light on “invisible” processes such as lobbying.
A report produced by Populus for the Charity Commission shows that confidence in charities has fallen to the lowest level since monitoring began in 2005, thanks largely to stories about financial mismanagement, aggressive tactics used by chuggers and cold callers, and the tragic case last year of pensioner Olive Cooke, reportedly “exhausted” by charity requests in the weeks before she took her life.
Why the ‘hard selling’ tactics?
Well, the charity sector is still largely reliant on the direct debit as its financial model. In these economically uncertain times, giving on a monthly basis can be problematic, particularly for younger people who may be struggling with student debt.
Meanwhile, online platforms such as Just Giving, Virgin Money Giving and Every Click allow people to donate small amounts on an occasional basis – safe in the knowledge that the money is going directly to the right place, and not being spent on refilling the office coffee machine or other overheads.
Many charities have been forced to re-examine their relationship with their supporters. - Highlight to share -
It’s not all bad
Many charities have been forced to re-examine their relationship with their supporters.
Friends of the Earth ran a ‘Are we getting it right?’ campaign to encourage donor feedback, and proved that encouraging the public to engage in non-financial ways is a great way to build trust and strengthen relationships.
And while charities have serious intent, there’s also scope for fun: the viral Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014 showed how a simple idea could engage thousands of people, while the “give then nominate” idea allowed donors to spread the word easily via their digital networks. People power at its finest.
Huge bonuses, Libor rigging, mis-selling PPI… Banks have taken a battering since the crash of 2008, and many would say rightly so.
Attempts are being made to regain the public’s trust, including the establishment in April last year by the Banking Standards Review Council of a 14-member board tasked with supporting and encouraging change among the UK’s lenders.
Banks need to adopt a consumer-led culture, rather than one focused purely on maximising shareholder profits. - Highlight to share -
Meanwhile, into the ‘trust gap’ have streamed a number of challenger banks who are promising to do things differently. Purely digital ventures such as Atom, Mondo and B, and new high-street banks such as Metro Bank, are attempting to lure customers with claims of clearer information on fees, improved user experience and better customer service.
Likewise, with banks still largely unwilling to lend to small businesses and startups, new forms of finance, such as invoice financing and P2P (peer to peer) lending have sprung up in recent years, along with crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Crowdcube.
It’s not all bad
Despite this, it’s unlikely that the big banks are going away any time soon. The advantages they have over the challengers are their longevity and their infrastructure, strengths they should play to.
However, there are lessons they can learn from the startups: to be more upfront about fees, be more proactive about getting in touch with consumers – Natwest already does this well, sending text alerts when the interest rate changes – actively solicit feedback and deal with complaints quickly and effectively. In short, banks need to adopt a consumer-led culture, rather than one focused purely on maximising shareholder profits.
What applies to public bodies and huge corporations also applies across all sectors, and there are takeaways here for brands: the importance of being transparent and honest, making customer service the number-one priority, and engaging customers in ways that don’t always involve selling them something – treating them, in essence, like friends rather than “service users”.
By the way, here’s one institution that, despite some rocky years, is more popular than ever: the Royal Family. We’re not suggesting that Lloyds Bank replace its black horse figurehead with a couple of cute toddlers, but it might be worth a try…