Trust came up in two very different contexts today, but raising very similar issues. The first was a visit, for no particular reason, to Slow Leadership, having not been near it for months. Fairly randomly, I came across a post on why trusting people more is the simplest way to cut your workload and stress:
Stop a moment. Think about all the extra work people load onto themselves because they don’t trust others: the checking, following through, doing things yourself because you don’t believe others will do them properly — or at all. If you took all that way, how much extra time would you suddenly find in your day? How much of your work pressure would disappear?
Quite a lot is my immediate answer – though less because of failings by individuals of the kind described in the post (which is not to say that those don’t happen too), or even of the organisations those individuals operate in, much more because of some very deep systemic issues, which then cascade back down to individuals and their behaviour. Reading the transcript of any randomly selected PAC hearing serves to illustrate the point. The positive word for that is accountability, a healthy dose of which is essential for all public sector organisations to stop them from going bad, mad or both. The negative side effects can be quite corrosive though. That may be a cost worth paying, but it is not to be underestimated.
That takes us to the second time trust came up today. A room full of senior people from across government, central and local, come together to discuss, among other things, the old question of joined up services. There is no shortage of examples of where collaboration among service providers has demonstrably resulted in better and more efficient outcomes for customers – but somehow the examples don’t seem to be scalable or reproducible and the goal, shared without a shadow of doubt by everybody in the room, of delivering real improvements for customers seems as elusive as ever. Then somebody nails the problem, or at least one of the problems: we find it almost impossibly difficult to trust each other. Again, that is emphatically about the system not the individuals. It is about one organisation feeling the need to collect for itself information which another organisation holds; to verify in one place something which has already been checked in another; to protect its customers against one set of risks without thinking through their consequential exposure to another set of risks. The first set of risks is real and cannot be wished away – but is only part of reality, not the whole of it.
Even establishing that A should trust B often proves quite tricky. But it can get much more difficult quite quickly: if B also trusts C, does that imply or require that A necessarily trusts C? Logically, trust may be transitive in that way, but in the real world, things often look a lot more complicated than that.
It can, of course be done: if entire money transmission systems can work entirely on the basis of trust, and without there necessarily being any underpinning relationship between the parties trusting each other, the fine upstanding people who populate public service organisations should find it easy. And yet they – we – don’t, and the fact that we don’t is a hidden cost of doing business. Without identifying that cost, we cannot know whether it is too high.