Trust in our professions

I was pondering on this recently after noting the subjects and issues that regularly come up on Puffles’ twitter feed. Politics, media issues and legal issues are the ones that come up the most. It’s therefore all the more striking that politicians, lawyers and journalists tend to fare badly in surveys on trust in professions – YouGov and IpsosMori being examples.

The results from IpsosMori’s tracker make for grim reading too for business leaders and trade union leaders alike – people who are responsible for employing large numbers of people and representing the interests of large numbers of people alike. Yet when we look at the professions, the lack of trust in some of them is all the more striking given the roles that they play in society & the services they deliver. Estate agents are a classic example. Housing is such a core pillar to the lives that we lead. Journalism has taken a kicking on the back of the hacking scandals – not good given the role a free press is supposed to play in helping hold the rich and powerful to account. The financial crash and bankers’ bonuses / “rewards for failure” put the banking profession in the dock, and the MPs’ expenses scandal made the mud stick on Parliament too.

Doctors and teachers traditionally score highly in trust surveys. Yet the kicking that they and other public servants have taken in the press can’t have helped (even though those same surveys indicate that people don’t trust the press and/or those who work in it). Why is trust in medical and teaching professions higher? Is it because the public interact with them more regularly (and thus have stronger personal relationships with them?) Is it because nicer people go into those professions? Or something else or a combination?

Part of the issue I think is “public understanding” of each of the professions – which is part of the whole transparency issue. We saw this with the MPs’ expenses scandal where initially the defence was ‘no rules had been broken’ (bar those censured and/or convicted) even though the general feeling at the time was that the rules were wrong and shouldn’t have allowed some of the claims for expenses in the first place.

The same could be said for the register of financial interests for MPs, or the gifts register for civil servants. Just because something is published does not mean that it is publicised – and it is the latter that can get the snowball rolling for improvements if something is not right in the eyes of the general public.

For those of you who have watched the series “Under Cover Boss” on Channel 4, you may have noticed just how shocked the bosses are with some of the findings they uncover in the firms that they are supposed to be running. In the case of large firms, what does this say about the executives of such companies? What does this say about the role of non-executive directors? Do firms need to be more transparent in how they are run in order to improve the trust the public has with those who run large firms?

In terms of the civil service, I would like to see the institution make more of an effort to engage with the public so that they know what civil servants do. The number of times people have responded with “Oh, so are you a politician?” when finding out I was in the civil service is just one piece of anecdotal evidence.

Social media provides a huge opportunity for all of those professions lacking the public’s trust to do something about it. A number of people across different professions are already light years ahead – from the UKGovCamp network of Whitehall digital media types to CharonQC’s “Without Prejudice” podcasts on legal matters to Fi Douglas’ and Dr Natalie Silvy’s “Twitter Journal Club” on medical issues.

A note for institutions: Please do not put your public relations people or spin-meisters in charge of your social media operations. Please do not treat social media as just another outlet for press releases. The “social” in social media implies a conversation. Treating people as passive recipients of corporate messages won’t increase trust – quite the opposite. Instead, look at how you can use social media to connect people to those in your organisation who can help resolve their query or solve their problem. If, at the same time you can equip the general public with something that can help them next time around, you might go some way to help improving the public’s trust in your profession.

The challenge for those institutions goes not just for the employing organisations, but the professional institutions too…such as the one for bankers.


3 thoughts on “Trust in our professions

  1. Lots to agree with here, but one quibble. Greater transparency does not equal greater trust. If you have to know how something is being done in order to be satisfied that it is being done well, that isn’t ‘trust’, that is supervision, or scrutiny.

    I’m not arguing against transparency, I’m just saying that calls for greater transparency are evidence of lack of trust, and offering greater transparency doesn’t solve the trust problem until / unless people say “we believe you, you don’t have to keep proving it any more”. x

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