In a new post based on a paper from our Making Sense of Parliaments conference, Aileen Walker, Associate at Global Partners Governance, discusses how to build public trust in parliaments.
A framework for trust
A few years ago, I attended an international conference in Kyrgyzstan, organised by a Kyrgyz foundation set up to encourage civil society engagement in the developing democratic system in that post-Soviet country. I had been asked to talk about how to build public trust in state institutions.
There is, of course, no blueprint. My basic argument at the conference was that for the public to have trust in state institutions, those institutions, as a starting point, have to demonstrate good governance. I highlighted various good governance principles – openness, accountability, transparency. I gave examples of various supportive structures that can help promote good governance: legal, constitutional, and procedural mechanisms; ethical standards, and codes of conduct; independent monitoring systems; international frameworks; regulatory systems; and other checks and balances. I suggested that such mechanisms were not enough in themselves: they provide a framework for, not a guarantee of, good governance. A framework can help to establish a common understanding among citizens of the ethical standards they expect of their public bodies and elected representatives. But ultimately it is dependent on culture, and strong political leadership, whether the mechanisms are enforced and effective, and whether they lead to increased levels of trust.
The concept of trust is a problematic one, and particularly in politics.[i] Much has been written about the trust in general. Baroness Onora O’Neill, in her 2002 Reith lectures “A Question of Trust” makes the compelling case that you cannot “build trust”, rather you can only prove yourself to be trustworthy (or otherwise). This applies to both individuals and institutions. What evidence is available to demonstrate that they are worthy of trust? And trust to do what, exactly?
Thinking about trust in politics, for example: what qualities or behaviours would politicians need to demonstrate, to be regarded as trustworthy in the eyes of the public? Being competent? Keeping manifesto promises? Representing views like theirs? Not being corrupt? Working in the best interests of citizens? Sorting out all their constituents’ problems? Delivering a healthy national economy? All of the above?
How can politicians, and parliaments, hope to meet all the expectations placed on them and demonstrate that they are trustworthy?
Parliaments and trust
Members of Parliament have a keen understanding of their direct relationship with their constituents. It is vital, if they want to be elected again, that they nurture that relationship. So MPs are generally very good at publicising how they personally, and their parties, are working hard on behalf of the public. However, it is common among parliamentarians and parliamentary officials for there to be a weak appreciation of their role representing parliament as an institution. MPs do not necessarily see any need to present the role that the parliament, as a whole, plays to champion the concerns of citizens. Indeed, party politics, and politicians’ partisan criticism of each other, can actually add to the public’s negative impression of politicians and may be contributing to low levels of trust.
For the public to have trust in parliament, they need to see that Members of Parliament are conducting themselves in a trustworthy manner. They also need to understand the distinction between parliament and government, and appreciate parliament’s role in holding the government to account. Parliaments need to consider, therefore, how they are presenting themselves to the public as an institution, not just as a collection of party political individuals. Traditionally parliaments are not geared up to present a parliamentary corporate identity.[ii]
Stability and trust
The reported level of trust in political institutions and politicians is traditionally low, although it varies and fluctuates over time, and suffers more at times of political crises. Unsurprisingly, levels of trust are lowest in unstable political and economic states.
Global Partners Governance (GPG) works with legislatures around the world, often in unstable environments. The development support provided by GPG varies, depending on the political context, diplomatic priorities, and the host parliament’s strategic objectives. As part of international efforts to improve stability in the country, GPG’s support typically combines elements of internal (procedural) reforms, capacity building, organisational culture, strategic communications and public engagement. Experience of two projects I have personally been involved in as an Associate of GPG – in two very different political contexts: Sudan and Ukraine – have borne out the importance of the strategic communications principle of developing a sense of parliament as an institution.
This principle, I believe, applies regardless of the stability of the country. It is equally true in the UK, as in Ukraine and Sudan.
The political situation in Ukraine is volatile: hostilities with Russia over the annexation of Crimea; continuing armed conflict in the south eastern states; political conflict among the many political parties; high levels of corruption in the country; civil unrest and public protests. Civil society in Ukraine is active and well-organised, with loud demands for change. The Ukrainian parliament – the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (VRU) – is concerned about the very low levels of trust reported among citizens of Ukraine in its parliament.
The fractured parliament is a particularly difficult issue from a communications point of view:
- There are lots of parties, and factions within parties, and factions within factions.
- The Speaker has two deputies, from different parties, but they do not work as a Speaker’s team with shared staff; they are separate power bases for the parties.
- One of the most noticeable challenges for the VRU is the sheer amount of legislation presented – over 4,000 bills each session. Every Member, Committee, political party, and faction seems to regard presenting bills as the main index of political activity. Of course, they cannot all be considered, let alone enacted or implemented.
- The media is active and critical; over 4,000 journalists have parliamentary passes. The parliamentary Administration dare not reduce the number or they will be accused of stifling a free press.
There are so many competing actors on the parliamentary stage in Ukraine, and little, if any, sense of an institution working cohesively for the good of the citizens. We were told that in the past the public had supported the parliament when it played a key role in unseating President Yanukovych in 2014, but since then there had been a loss of appreciation for the VRU and its role.
Citizens in Sudan also have low levels of trust in their parliament, but for different reasons. Sudan has a bicameral parliament – the National Assembly and the Council of States, the latter dealing with matters relating to the decentralised states and localities. There is a powerful ruling party and a strong presidential system. The National Assembly, with which GPG has been working for three years, is dominated by the ruling party and allied parties. There are some opposition Members, appointed as part of agreements reached under a national dialogue process, designed to bring about greater stability and democracy following the secession of South Sudan in 2011. Press freedom is a major issue. The media is tightly controlled and regulated, and broadcasts the party line (or risks being closed down). Many activists in the country do not vote at general elections, as they do not feel that elections are free and fair.
The political and administrative leadership in the National Assembly want to strengthen the Assembly’s oversight function and improve its reputation among the public. On the whole, people know virtually nothing about the National Assembly, and a public lack of distinction between the legislature and the executive, is (with some justification) even more marked than in other countries.
To many citizens in Sudan, the National Assembly seems simply irrelevant. A low level of trust is worrying, but in some ways, it is not necessarily a bad thing for democracy. It could be argued that doubts, scepticism, and lack of trust in political institutions are positive – keeping a democracy healthy and relevant.[iii] Apathy is surely worse. To be regarded as irrelevant and not worthy of engagement, is possibly the sharpest attack on a parliament’s legitimacy.
How parliaments can address low levels of trust
Given that there is no single reason for lack of trust, there is no single solution. Specific fundamental underlying political, economic, and social problems clearly have to be addressed to start earning the trust of citizens. Internal procedural reforms may have to be considered. However, from a strategic communications point of view, my experience suggests that there are some common principles which can be applied – be it in the UK, Ukraine, Sudan or Kyrgyzstan.
- Develop a strategic communications plan that concentrates on the role of the institution of parliament, and explains its distinctive role vis a vis the government.
- Work internally to foster a sense of identity and value around the institution of parliament; what values does the parliament want to project? To gain Member buy-in, show how strategic parliamentary communications complement the individual relationship Members have with their constituents.
- Show the relevance of parliament to people’s lives and to democracy.
- Explain what Members do; demonstrate and publicise the scrutiny and representative work that Members and Committees are carrying out on behalf of citizens.
- Be open to the public, encourage familiarity: invite people in; develop school resources and programmes; review the parliamentary website from the point of view of the public
- Consider outreach initiatives to bridge the perceived gap between individuals and parliament as a remote institution: go to where people are; engage on issues that concern them; use trusted intermediaries and build strategic partnerships.
- Look for ways to open up proceedings and provide opportunities for the public to participate in proceedings and have their voices heard in parliament, in a meaningful way (otherwise it could increase disillusionment).
- Train staff and Members in communication techniques; craft key messages; prioritise key audience
My experiences in the UK and elsewhere suggest that there are common challenges in all parliaments relating to trust, regardless of the political context. Some key insights:
- Parliaments, like individuals, cannot “build trust”; they have to demonstrate they are trustworthy
- Parliaments need to develop a sense of their role as an institution, and communicate to the public the value of parliament to democracy
- The nature of party politics, with MPs attacking and undermining other MPs and other parties’ policies, and criticising the institution themselves, makes the strategic communication task even more difficult
- Reported scepticism and dissatisfaction with parliament is not necessarily negative; voters demanding more of politicians can be good for democracy.
Aileen Walker OBE is an Associate at Global Partners Governance. Prior to joining GPG Aileen worked at the House of Commons in the UK Parliament for over 30 years in a range of public engagement, research, information, communications and change management roles. Between 2008 and 2016 she was Director of Public Engagement, where she led a significant development strategy to improve the UK Parliament’s relations with the public. Follow Aileen on Twitter: @AileenWalkerUK
[i] See for example: Public Perceptions of Standards in Public Life in the UK and Europe, Committee on Standards in Public Life, 2014; What’s Trust Got to do With It?, Hansard Society/Political Studies Association/Centre for Citizenship Globalization and Governance, 2010; and successive Hansard Society Audits of Political Engagement
[ii] Explored further, for example, by: Kelso, “Parliament and political disengagement: Neither waving not drowning”, Political Quarterly, 2007, 78(3), 364-373; Leston-Bandeira, “Why symbolic representation frames parliamentary public engagement”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 2016, 18(2) 498-516