February 6, 2024
I have been thinking a lot about social trust lately.
In a recent piece in The New York Times, Eric Klineberg argued that the lingering effect of COVID isn’t social isolation or loneliness, but a decline of public trust. He wrote that this is in part because our social institutions let us down when we needed them most. Unable to trust government, people quickly turned on each other. Klineberg isn’t alone in arguing trust is at dangerously low levels. The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2024 found, “Trust in companies from global powers is in decline, worry over societal threats and establishment leaders misleading us is growing, while peers are as trusted as scientists for information on new innovations.” The story echoes across polling from Gallup, Pew, and others.
There are a lot of reasons for this, there is always more to the story and this is meant to be a short missive. It is fair to say that a lot of the mistrust is historically earned, some is earned more recently and a lot is the result of relentless attacks on public institutions for partisan gain (Pew’s breakdown of partisan views of institutions is instructive). If elected officials keep telling people they can’t trust the government, eventually people will believe them. As my first boss in Congress used to say, “you can’t burn down the house and expect to occupy it.”
As many of you know, I care deeply about our public institutions and am very concerned about the state of our democracy. That’s one reason that one of your colleagues and I are talking to the Commissioner of the FDA tonight in Jack Morton about how we increase trust in public institutions.
Closer to home, I think about trust at GW and in SMPA. I wonder what we can do better to increase trust among, and in, each other and the university we share. We need to trust that we are all committed to each other’s success, that we see each other as people first, and that we are all bringing our best to our community. You need to trust that your professors and others in SMPA and GW are doing all we can to help you become good citizens as well as successful professionals. Your professors need to trust that you are honestly doing the best you can.
Several weeks ago a former SMPA Terker Fellow named Kristen Grimm, the founder of Spitfire Strategies, released a report on trust (one of your former colleagues did a lot of work on the report, and I was one of several early reviewers). Unlike many other reports, this one is in the form of a workbook. It asks readers to reflect on their organizations, what they are doing right, and what they can do better. It’s helped me think about SMPA and GW. You might find it useful as well. It was designed for civil society organizations, and Spitfire only works for progressive causes, so not all of it will fit with all that you do. But enough of it will to make the work worthwhile. The report’s three big pieces of advice are: walk your talk; put your best foot forward; and don’t step in it. Seems like a good place to start.