The Public Trust

My last three posts here have been about the Council Code of Conduct and the role of the Integrity Commissioner, and this morning I was in a training session with councillors and senior municipal staff from across Northumberland. Out of the enormous binder I was presented with once I was elected, and the numerous training sessions we’ve had so far, I’m quite sure that no other topic is covered as much as this. You might even say that a councillor’s top job is to conduct ourselves with integrity: according to the law, to the code, and to the best interests of residents and staff. It’s about how we do it, more than what we do. There are two main reasons for this:

Knowing Our Role

First, and this is a critical point that I’ve talked about before, Council does not run the municipality. Staff have all of the expertise needed to run the municipality effectively and efficiently, forever. They don’t need a council to tell them how to do it, even if we had the expertise to do so. When a decision needs to be made, they do all of the necessary research to not only find the best solution but also to ensure that it fits into the overall policy framework of provincial and municipal legislation. They put all of that into a report and present it to Council, and councillors use that as the basis for our decisions. When we decide on a matter, we weigh the facts — but all of the facts come from staff.

That means that we’re weighing the facts not in the sense of deciding what is the best solution (the staff have determined that), or the solution that makes the most financial sense (staff did that too), or how it should be implemented (included in the next report). We don’t even have particular insight regarding the wishes of residents: staff processes include public consultations through public meetings and polls, so they often have a better sense of what residents think than councillors do, and they include that in their reports. We weigh the facts from the staff report against other priorities according to our strategic plan, which we (ideally) make based on the needs and desires of residents; provided there is no conflict with that plan (something staff take into account anyway), most of the time our “votes” are more a matter of general oversight and information sharing. Yes, we could vote down what staff recommends to us, but we would have little basis for doing so unless there’s already been a breakdown of communication and relationships that led to staff wasting their time preparing reports that Council wouldn’t approve. Our role isn’t about what the municipality does, in terms of individual projects and functions, so much as overseeing the process, sharing information with the public, and providing general direction. We aren’t the doers.

Public Trust

But the main reason that there’s so much emphasis on how we do what we do is because of the magical ingredient that makes a municipality not only function, but that makes it a community: public trust. (Not to be confused with The Public Trust, the doctrine that the government holds natural resources in trust on behalf of the public.)

Trust makes the social world go ’round, it’s the basis for every relationship in our community:

  • If Council doesn’t trust staff, how can we make decisions based on their reports? Will we vote down their recommendations because we think we know better than them? How much staff time will that waste? Staff feel micromanaged when councillors don’t trust in their expertise or respect their recommendations.
  • If staff don’t trust Council, it makes for a terrible working environment. Their efficiency decreases, they’re more likely to quit, and the work of the municipality grinds to a halt.
  • If the public doesn’t trust municipal staff, the same thing happens: the relationship between staff and the public becomes politicized and toxic, staff feel persecuted and micromanaged when it comes back to them that the public is criticizing their work (especially if that criticism is coming through councillors who also don’t trust them), and they look for greener pastures.

There are two common threads in all of this: that a breach of trust at any level has a major negative impact on staff and therefore on the business of the municipality, costing us all time and money and creating a negative environment for our community; and that (I hope you can see this in the above) that Council has a key role to play in establishing and maintaining trust with both staff and the public, as the primary interface between them.

Council and Trust

Because Council’s primary role isn’t doing the business of the municipality, and because strategic planning is something that we do periodically rather than all the time, our day to day responsibility is to be the interface between the municipality and the public. The trust that makes our world go ’round is our primary concern.

Also, as the directors of the municipality, Council sits on top of the municipality’s hierarchy. As the KPMG report on staff experience in Brighton points out, the culture of the organization is primarily a leadership issue. We set the tone for the entire organization, and I would add, for the entire community:

  • If Council doesn’t trust staff, it encourages the public not to trust staff. That not only degrades the staff’s experience, it undermines their pride in their work; and it undermines the public’s pride in our community.
  • If staff or residents don’t trust a councillor, it undermines trust in the municipality as a whole. That degrades the sense of community and trust in institutions more broadly, which creates a more volatile political culture in which populism and misinformation can thrive.

I put that last point in bold because it’s what drives the emphasis on a councillor’s integrity and conduct. While the negative impact of a councillor’s misconduct on staff can be brutal for individual staff members and the culture of the municipality as a whole, the broader impact on public trust can be absolutely devastating.

When Trust is Gone

If we want to see the impact of a lack of public trust, we need only look at our provincial and federal politics in Canada. Driving through our community, we see flags flying from trucks and houses that say “F*CK TRUDEAU”, a flag that is associated with the “Freedom Convoy“, a national protest movement that is steeped in misinformation (about vaccines, government policies and laws, our rights and freedoms, etc). While the protests were ostensibly about vaccine mandates, they were quickly overwhelmed with all kinds of vitriol, including calls for violence, wild misinformation, and conspiracy theories. The self-proclaimed “Queen of Canada” was there, a woman closely tied to the American “QAnon” conspiracy theories, who claims that she’s discovered underground tunnels that crisscross Canada, full of communist operatives. Her followers have stopped paying utility bills after she declared utilities to be free; and even attempted a citizens’ arrest of police officers.

Why was life-saving medicine the subject of nationwide protests that morphed into public belligerence, conspiracy theories, and calls for violence? Because without trust, even life-saving medicine and simple and respectful protocols to reduce the spread of disease are taken as a threat.

Think about all of the institutions that we depend upon every day that function entirely on the trust we invest in them:

  • The Rule of Law depends on our ability to trust that the law applies to all of us, without exception; how much of negative politics at any given level feeds off of the implication of wrongdoing on behalf of elected officials, and the resentment that comes when those politicians aren’t held accountable? Political parties leak and stoke personal scandals to discredit one another, and it’s common to hear accusations of outright criminality, leading to questions of a government’s legitimacy.
  • The value of money depends on our ability to trust in the value of a dollar and that vendors will accept it in trade for goods and services; the rise and fall of crypto-currencies in the past few years shows how volatile money itself can be without the stability that trust (and regulation to reinforce that trust) can provide.
  • Democratic institutions depend on our ability to trust in democratic processes; the last few years of American politics shows how much division and unrest can be caused by a lack of trust in election processes and outcomes.
  • Experts in every field are experiencing the frustration of the Greek prophet Cassandra, gifted with crucial knowledge but cursed so that nobody would believe her or heed her warnings. Climate scientists perhaps more than anyone understand that without trust, knowledge is almost useless.

Due to our prominence and position of authority, elected politicians have more responsibility for the level of trust in society than anyone. If we cast doubt on the credentials and warnings of experts, people will doubt in expertise. If we disparage the character of our fellow politicians, and make accusations toward them, people will believe that our society is corrupt and lose confidence in our laws. If we claim that an election was stolen, people may even storm the capitol.

That’s about what we say about others. At the same time, if we do anything that brings disrepute upon ourselves, the effect can be the same. There’s already more than enough people out there spreading cynicism about elected officials; if we screw up, we prove them right. That’s why there’s so much attention in the law, the Code, and our training, on keeping us on the right track.

Responsibility to Rebuild Trust

While the Code of Conduct and the Integrity Commissioner focus on keeping us out of trouble, I think that we have a responsibility to go further. In a society in which there’s already a lot of public trust, it’s good enough for elected officials to just maintain it, not giving anyone excuse for doubting in the integrity of our systems.

But we don’t live in a society with a lot of public trust. Researchers studying the level of trust in society have found that only 1/3 of Canadians have a positive sense of trust about our society. When a majority of people are already cynical and untrusting about our institutions, elected officials need to do more than just avoid making it worse. We need to do everything we can to inspire trust.

That’s one of the main reasons I write about our processes. Trust, or a lack thereof, comes to the forefront on matters that we can’t see or understand. If I know what’s going on, and I understand it, then I don’t need to trust anyone – I’m already in the loop! But if matters are secret, or obscured by unclear or difficult to navigate processes or jargony language, then I have to take someone else’s word for it and trust that they’re doing the right thing. Or not. My hope here is to make the processes clearer, not so that you won’t have to trust in Council and municipal staff, but so that you can see for yourselves that we’re on the right track!

Other ways that we can improve our transparency so that you have a strong basis for trust in our municipal government:

  • A plain language bylaw that requires that all communications from the municipal government include a translation from bureaucratic jargon into plain language. (The bureaucratic jargon is also required by law, but we could add plain language to make it more accessible!) I’ll write about this in the new year, and maybe introduce a motion to get such a bylaw.
  • More opportunities for public engagement at a higher level, including things like Participatory Budgeting (in which residents get to decide on part of the municipal budget) and Citizens’ Assemblies (in which residents get to directly decide on important issues), to engage residents more directly in the kinds of processes that Council engages in regularly on their behalf. I hope to bring this up this term.
  • A commitment from councillors to not just represent the municipality to the residents and vice versa, but also to translate and explain language and processes. And a commitment from residents to make an effort to learn!

On that last point: public trust is not just the responsibility of councillors. Trust is one of those things that is both unconscious and conscious: we may feel trust or distrust in our very guts, but we can also choose whether or not to trust someone. Making the choice to trust someone else in a situation we don’t understand is called “faith”, and it’s one of the highest abilities we have as human beings. Choosing to have faith in others can create trust out of nothing, and it feels good when our faith is rewarded by the faithfulness of others.

My experience of the Municipality of Brighton has consistently rewarded my faith. Our councillors and staff don’t always get it right, like anyone else, but they’re doing the best they can with what they have, often swimming upstream against a tide of distrust and confusion because of the societal distrust we all live in. If the only thing I accomplish as a councillor is to help inform residents so that they can better trust the systems that structure our lives, or to somehow inspire faith in the people who work within those systems, I will count this term as a success.

4 thoughts on “The Public Trust

    1. You’re not wrong, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Can you imagine what it would be like if the members of a Council had to somehow be superior to staff in terms of expertise in every relevant field? Or if they, lacking such superiority, nonetheless felt the urge to contradict such expertise for the sake of feeling like they were doing something?

      To me this comes down to conceptions of leadership. Some people view leadership as control: in such a view, anything that comes before Council must win Council’s approval, and that approval becomes an exercise of power. Others view leadership as inspiration, guidance, and support: in such a view, things come before Council so that Council may align them with our vision (if need be), and that alignment is mostly an expression of the relationship between staff, Council, and residents. In the second option, a “rubber stamp” is a sign that everything is working well, rather than a sign of a lack of oversight.

      1. Well I wish you luck when trying to defend Staff plans when they conflict with the voters’ opinions. Jeff you may be ‘housetrained’ even before your first Council meeting!

      2. We’ve had a few already, heh.

        I’m actually looking forward to those conversations, I think they’re a central part of my role as a Councillor, and one of the reasons I keep this blog. If people don’t understand a council decision that’s based on a staff decision, I can help explain the staff decision and our rationale for supporting it. If they do understand it and still disagree with it, that’s a discussion we can have; I doubt that we’ll all agree all of the time, but the ability to have that conversation is democracy in action, and I’m here for it!

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