Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Bridging faith gap between government and leadership

By Yap Koon Hong, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2013

TRUST, according to public relations company Edelman, is a measurable asset.

Every year, for the past 13 years, the company has tracked it globally with the Edelman Trust Barometer, ranking a selected band of countries through a survey on how trustworthy their citizens think their key institutions are.

The survey calculates the ranking based on how much a nation's citizens say they trust four major institutions: government, business, media and non-governmental organisations.

At first glance, this indicator has the Singapore Government enjoying a distinctly high level of trust among Singaporeans. It started at seventh place in 2011, when Singapore was first picked for the survey, and leapfrogged to third last year. But a closer look at the findings disclose a paradox, that public trust is not so clear-cut an issue: Despite the high levels of trust Singaporeans place in the Government as an institution, they trust government leadership a lot less.

Only 23 per cent of the Singaporeans polled said they trusted government leaders to tell the truth, versus the 72 per cent who said they trusted the Government to do what is right as an institution.

This year's survey was carried out online, and involved some 31,000 respondents in the 26 countries selected. The respondents comprised average citizens as well as "informed citizens", whom the survey profiled as college-educated, in the top 25 per cent of household incomes and actively engaged in media, business and public policy.

The 49-point gap in public faith between government and leadership is even higher than that of China, which registered a 47-point gap, or India, at 35 points.

To be sure, the survey report said the yawning gap in public faith between a government and its leadership is a global trend.

"Less than one-fifth of the general public believes business leaders and government officials will tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue," wrote the company's president and chief executive Richard Edelman of this year's survey findings.

The dissonance is significant in the West as well, but on a lesser scale, as Germany (32 points), the United States (28 points) and France (25 points) illustrate.

While Singapore is not an exception, the gap between public faith in the Government - its sturdiness and reliability - and leadership - telling the truth about difficult issues - is high.

So what gives?

Edelman offers one explanation: Singapore leaders are getting blamed for the bad that happens, while the good that they do is taken for granted. "Individual leaders are not getting the credit for the stability and strength of their institution, which are perhaps already deemed stable, but do take the blame when things have gone wrong," wrote Edelman's Singapore managing director Amanda Goh.

While she may be right, the reason isn't new or unobvious, since government leadership has not changed since independence; and does not explain fully the current scepticism towards leadership.

My own take on this is that public trust in leadership today is increasingly being driven by instinct and feeling, perhaps more so than by thought and considered reasoning.

Visceral instincts, not hard-headed reasoning, explain why two constituencies went to opposition hands at the two by-elections after the 2011 General Election. Both seats fell vacant for similar reasons: the incumbent's reported sexual impropriety. But voters turned against the ruling party when it was its candidate who had the affair; while continuing to support the opposition party whose candidate's misbehaviour triggered the by-election.

The People's Action Party managed to win over previous generations with its efficient, clean administration that delivered the goods. These are now taken for granted. The public now has different expectations of its leaders.

There is a gap today between what people expect and what leaders are delivering, resulting in a public mood that is negative towards the establishment. That is why the vocal clout of social media, whose default sentiment is anti-establishment, is magnified many times beyond its actual size.

How then can the Government bridge the gap? Edelman offers a model for business that can apply to leadership as well.

The traditional model of authority is a top-down pyramid from government leaders to bureaucrats and finally, to citizens.

But to empower people, another dimension is needed. Imagine an inverted pyramid glued to the base of a traditional pyramid: This alternative authority structure would comprise activists and ordinary folks who insist on being heard, and on having a say.

So, even if an official source of authority validates a proposal (Parliament passing the White Paper), expect reactive traction (protest at Hong Lim Park) if the message doesn't feel right.

This diamond-shaped structure is the new paradigm of truth-telling and trust-building.

If this inverted pyramid of an alternative authority structure is excluded, expect the trust gap among Singaporeans to remain or even widen between leaders and the institutions they helm.

What does that mean at ground zero?

Government leaders must establish a quality stake in the new places where public sentiment reside. Ministerial Facebook accounts, for instance, are useful but insufficient. There are hardly any significant, personal or non-establishment social media sites or personalities who argue for the Government, compared with those that are anti-establishment.

As advertisers know, credibility is best earned by letting others vouch for you. Public faith in leadership today can no longer be won by links to reputation, which is about past achievements, or official capacity, which is predicated on an appointment from the top.

It must include the crafting of trust from below, through public perception; through the feeling that leaders can and will hear, internalise and act on feedback effectively and satisfactorily.

Bridging the faith gap between government and leadership is now about building fresh credibility, not rebuilding the old, because the structure of trust construction has changed.

The writer oversees readership concerns and factual accuracy in The Straits Times.

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