06 May 2005
It's not just politicians who have a problem with trust. There's also declining confidence in public services. Alex Klaushofer asks whether reputation management is the answer
The election campaign of the past few weeks could in one sense be said to have focused on a single issue. A wide range of subjects has been bandied about, from opposition accusations that Tony Blair reneged on his promise not to introduce university top-up fees to the allegation that he lied about Iraq, but much of the debate has centred on one main topic: public trust.
Electoral expediency has perhaps made trust the political football of the moment, but the issue has been slowly building for some time. Since New Labour sailed in with its promise of a new, post-sleaze era eight years ago, there has been a series of high-profile ethical disappointments, involving the resignations of Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers and David Blunkett.
Add to this the damage created by the culture of spin – something pointed out even by Geoff Mulgan, former director of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, in a recent Prospect article – and the current consensus that trust in politicians and major public figures has been seriously undermined is unsurprising.
Away from the election battlefield, though, a lesser-known story about the supposed decline of public trust is playing out, as public service professionals face their own challenges. In February, Sir Michael Bichard, head of the inquiry into police child protection procedures in the wake of the Soham murders, argued that public service providers had 'forfeited' the public's trust by failing to take responsibility for dramatic failures in such cases. In an outspoken statement, the former permanent secretary suggested that public servants needed to be more open and accountable about their failures, rather than trying to shift the blame or gloss over the facts.
At first sight, the claim sits rather uneasily with recent evidence that individuals' confidence in public employees with whom they have personal contact remains high. Last year, opinion poll company Mori found that public trust in doctors was at its highest for 20 years, with more than 90% of respondents satisfied with them. 'There has been no substantial change in trust in individuals like doctors or teachers,' says Ben Page, director of Mori's Social Research Institute. 'Trust in individuals seems to remain as strong as ever.'
Where the public's faith does seem to have been shaken is in the corporate, organisational face of public services. Research by Mori for an Audit Commission report published 18 months ago, Trust in the public sector, found that nearly two-thirds of those questioned felt their trust had been eroded by service shortcomings such as the failure of the London Borough of Haringey's social services to intervene to protect Victoria Climbié, and the retention of deceased children's organs by Alder Hey Hospital. Only a quarter felt organisations learnt from the mistakes they made.
Of course, there have always been failures in service provision, but the way they are now interpreted by the public might have as much to do with reduced respect for authority as with the increased incidence of failures. 'There is some sign of a decline in trust in major institutions and in the end of deference to authority,' says Page. And with public institutions no longer protected by a belief in their near-infallibility, when things go wrong trust in them becomes subject to the same standards that govern everyday human relationships.
'It's not different from trust between individuals. It's built up in stages and it's easily broken,' says Andrew Coulson, senior lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham, and editor of Trust and contracts: relationships in local government, health and public services.
The way the media cover scandals such as the Climbié case, he adds, helps create the impression that poor provision might be widespread rather than one-off mistakes. 'The blanket coverage of that implied that all social service departments are chaotic,' he says. 'But it's not true, and you can tell that from the CPA [Comprehensive Performance Assessment] scores.'
It's a view that chimes with the experience of Tony Bell, chief executive of the Royal Liverpool Children's NHS Trust. 'There is an issue about how the press deal with organisations that are trying to be open and honest,' he says. 'There are still a lot of negative rewards in the system.'
As the acting chief executive appointed in early 2001 to pick up the pieces when Alder Hey Hospital found itself at the centre of the organ retention scandal, Bell knows more than most about the long, hard struggle to win back public trust. The first thing he did was to establish new channels of communication so that the parents of children whose organs had been retained could be kept informed of events, along with the press, the Department of Health and the organisation's own staff.
Although the fact that new information was constantly coming to light meant that he did not always have all the facts at his disposal, Bell was determined to adopt a policy of openness. 'Tinkering at the edges is fairly transparent and ineffective with the public,' he says. 'The public are more discerning than that – they're looking for genuine honesty from public services if confidence and respect are to be restored.'
Five years on, this March, the Alder Hey parents' campaigning organisation, Pity II, closed its offices, and it looks as if the hospital has finally won back its users' trust. But Bell is wary of complacency. 'It's a long-term process, probably one there's never an end to,' he says. 'I feel that it's something I can never take for granted.' With a parents' and carers' council now an integral part of the trust's governance system, the policy of openness and communication inaugurated in the shadow of the scandal continues. 'On our website we publish the good things and the negative things,' he adds. 'We try to be a lot more open.'
According to Coulson, this willingness to grapple with the real issues and share failings and difficulties with the public is increasingly part of the public sector culture. 'We are becoming more open,' he says. And, he thinks, this trend towards dealing with substance rather than spin will gain extra momentum as the new Freedom of Information Act begins to make itself felt. 'A lot of stories are going to come out under the Freedom of Information Act in the next six months, because people are going to get access to their files,' he says. It is also likely to boost the already burgeoning compensation culture. 'Anyone looking for serious money is going to use the FOI Act,' he adds.
In the meantime, many public service organisations are using another tool in the battle for improved public trust ratings. Every area of Haringey council's activities was affected by the Climbié case. 'People didn't want to come and work here,' says Lesley Courcouf, the London borough's assistant chief executive. 'You advertised top posts and nobody applied.'
She rejects the view that the scandal alone was responsible for the council's poor reputation. 'It wasn't just about Climbié, Haringey just wasn't seen as a great council,' she says. The authority embarked on a wholesale attempt to change its fortunes by improving services, listening to residents' views and boosting the morale of staff – many of whom are also residents – through training and new appraisal systems. Since environmental issues were uppermost among locals' concerns, the council invested an extra £5m in cleaning up the borough last year.
The council's CPA rating rose from 'weak' in 2002 to 'fair' in 2004, so Courcouf feels the approach is working. 'Admittedly, we're not as good as some of the
local authorities, which have moved from good to excellent, but our performance indicators are steadily improving,' she says. 'We've had a decent round of applications. I think the reputation of the council is going up.'
Although addressing the substance of the problem through service improvement has been part of Haringey's strategy in improving its reputation, a conscious attempt to accentuate the positive and play down the negative has also been central to its approach. 'You have to replace that with some of the things that the council does well. Build on the things that you are good at,' says Courcouf.
The Haringey example is part of a growing trend among public sector organisations to manage actively the reputation they have with service users, the media and key players in their communities. 'Reputation management is all about trust', says Peter Bingle, managing director of consultancy Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, which specialises in reputation and crisis management. 'Public services are now much more alert to the fact that they must act like a private sector brand,' he adds.
He says this involves building up a level of trust where customers/service users have such faith in the organisation that they respect its views on products and services – for example, welcoming a supermarket's advice about food. 'I think we're moving towards that in public services,' he says.
The move to a more business-like approach is partly a result of the public service reform agenda. This puts increased pressure on providers to demonstrate results. 'In the private sector there's increasing pressure to report intangible results, and reputation is one of them. In the public services, it's a key way to show your performance,' says Henley Management College's Kevin Money, who has been researching reputation management since the late 1990s.
Some public sector organisations have been managing their reputations under the guise of initiatives in 'community consultation' and 'stakeholder engagement' for years, he adds. 'If you're managing reputation, it's about managing relationships and demonstrating that you've got value within those relationships,' he says.
One authority taking an innovative approach to this is Nottingham. Fed up with the city's growing reputation for binge-drinking and gun crime, the authority set up a 'reputation management team' in January. Comprising two full-time posts and one half-time post using staff seconded from the press office it is, says Nottingham City Council's senior press officer, Tim Baggs, 'a resource that's able to respond in a more consistent and robust way'. Its output includes Notice Nottingham, a weekly bulletin sent to 500 'key stakeholders' that details the good things going on in the city.
One of the things that distinguishes the team from the traditional PR unit, says Nottingham's chief executive, Gordon Mitchell, is the way it promotes the city more widely rather than just the council. 'It's not narrowly about service,' he says. 'It's "do they see us as doing the right thing in the cities?".' The relationships the team seeks to nurture are not so much service users as key local players such as businesses and universities. 'What intermediaries say about us plays a big part in what everyone else thinks,' says Mitchell.
This proactive approach will, he hopes, help the council to emulate the private sector's skills in telling customers about excellent services. 'We're not generally as good at that – people take things for granted,' he says. 'Everyone knows that councils collect the rubbish and keep the streets clean. But nobody goes round and says "my council's really good at it".'
In an attempt to drive the point home, on one day last month the council suspended street cleaning in the city centre for a day as part of a three-month 'Big Spring Clean' initiative. In a campaign carefully co-ordinated with local press coverage, the litter-strewn Market Square was designed to show the locals just how much the council does for them. So was it something like a protest from the woman of the house to an unappreciative family? 'It's absolutely that territory,' admits Mitchell.
But not everyone is convinced that reputation management is the path to trust in public services. 'One of the things that I fear about reputation management is that it can focus on talking up the positive and trying to eliminate the negative, rather than being open and honest about the negative and what you're going to do about it,' says Bell.
And with a public still wary of the controlling tendencies of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, any impression that public services are buying into political spin is unlikely to go down well. 'If it is spin, then it will fail,' says Money. 'Reputation management has got caught up in communications, but it's actually about reputation,' he adds.
Nottingham rejects the notion that its new reputation management team is in the business of spin. 'We're not making anything up; we're just drawing attention to the things we do here,' says Mitchell.
But whatever approach public service organisations take to gain trust, the greater openness brought about by the Freedom of Information Act will soon present them with fresh challenges. 'It really depends on how public services react to it,' says Page. 'If you take it as a call to be more open and to say sorry, then their stock will rise. If they resent it and try to get around it, it will make things worse.'