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Trust and Citizenship in the Age of Engagement


Trust and Citizenship in the Age of EngagementPolitical and government leaders speak freely about the fragility and failure of trust—and they are right to do so. The Edelman Trust Barometer has tracked this continued dispersion of authority and fragmentation of trust since the turn of the twenty-first century. A pattern is discernible but it would be naïve to adopt a uniform view. Meanwhile, citizen pressure and citizen activism increases, driven by access to information and technology. In this GES Roundtable, we explore whether a new framework of trust can emerge from the multiple crises the world faces today: economic, political, social and environmental. Can business play a more fundamental role in a reshaped social contract. And, in today’s age of engagement will trust be rebuilt not on institutional authorities, but on citizen values?

We remain a world in crisis: from a shaky and dysfunctional capitalism and corrosive behaviors in business, to burning issues of food, energy and water security. Despite our algorithmic, binary reason, we continue to frequently sleepwalk towards disaster in politics, economics and the environment. Extremes persist. Two hundred years after Thomas Malthus, we are still figuring out how to feed an exponentially growing planet, and how to do so equitably. Generations and nations remain trapped in poverty and therefore in states of economic and political servitude. Moribund and bureaucratic structures of authority imperil the advancement of humankind and question the social contract on a grander scale, while global businesses are now able to adopt the (better) behaviors of states, whose GDP they can comfortably outstrip.

Optimists might argue that a new class of citizen influencers is emerging, challenging the historic dominance of those moribund elites but not yet fully “bottom-up” in nature. This is not the Marxist class struggle of old. Instead, dramatic societal change is being driven by (access to) technology and by the behaviors that a more social world is shaping. Peer-to-peer trust is increasing, just as trust in traditional authorities (whether in government or in in business) continues to fragment and decline. Those at the vanguard of today’s revolution understand that information needs to be likeable, shareable and atomic—and that “business” now sits properly within the contract between the individual and society. Reason alone is not enough to drive change, nor is it any longer a linear relationship between citizen and state.

We are in effect witnessing the redistribution of trust and influence (, rather than wealth. Values are being reappraised: making money is no longer the primary driver of reputation or benefit, as societal and social factors become more central to the story. Transparency is the default position of today’s leaders and new, fully accountable expectations are rightly being placed on those nominally in control. Smart governments and smart corporations recognize the shifts and are embracing them with reimagined approaches that look to regular people (employees, mums, citizen journalists) to build new relationships; new paradigms of trust; different channels of communication; and refreshed values that speak to the more enduring truths of citizenship: wisdom, fortitude, prudence and justice. The age of engagement might yet build a fairer society.

Technology is the great enabler. Clouds see no borders. Solving the big issues of our time can become a collaborative, crowd-sourced effort. New networks of shared values and shared interests can determine the better path forward. “People power” is therefore no longer a threatening, revolutionary concept, but rather the axiomatic thrust of the social digital society. The wisdom of the crowd should usher in a new accountability—to people and to planet.

But this is the optimistic view.

Conversely, the crowd may not be as wise as Plato’s but could instead be as frenzied and as atavistic as Hobbes’. And trust in citizenship remains something of an Anglo-centric romanticized view. “Autocratic” governments can still enable society by enhancing the economic and social welfare of citizens, who therefore may mind less that there are no pesky, democratic elections to get in the way. A perversity prevails: the autocrats wield a very specific brand of trust and influence (centralized and controlled) but still build confidence and material well-being through wealth-creation. Only corruption tends to be their undoing. These governments are essentially behaving like business states—earning their license through a combination of economic and social reform—and their citizenship is of a very particular flavor. Paradoxically, “democratic” leadership (in government and in business) can fall quickly: penalized by citizen-stakeholders when seen to be not caring, not listening or not delivering. Here trust erodes fast and the License to Influence is quickly removed.

The middle way might simply be classified as an era of proper collaboration and better behavior, within a new, tri-partite contract between government, business and civic society in this age of engagement. Engagement will sit at the intersection of regular people, governments, business and the third sector. Citizen values will radiate outwards and will ultimately endure as we learn to do “what is right.” Here perhaps starts the transition from the age of engagement to the age of citizenship.

Today’s age of engagement will bring inevitable challenges. The twentieth century imperial model—whether of nation states or globalized corporation—is no longer enough. A social, networked world is unlikely to want to drive forward its new model army of twenty-first century citizens on a redundant chassis. The inconvenient truth for leaders, whether in government or in business, is that the pursuit of sustainable growth through an expansive, dominating geographical footprint based on exhausted structures is probably not consistent with a networked society that sees instead communities and people: real people with real values and real empathy to connect them. Systems alone are insufficient to engineer change: human empathy is the key to social progress.

And existing systems continue to fail us anyway. In the eurozone, the mismatch between political structure and economic resolution is all too evident. It is a political crisis, masquerading as an economic woe. In global politics, the post-WWII model cannot any longer be mapped onto a 21st century globalized and networked economy. In business, organizational systems designed on power-based silos (from the board of directors “downwards”) will most likely eventually fall victim to employee, supply-chain, stakeholder and customer networks that rightly choose to see no false boundaries. The age of engagement is properly horizontal because shared interests defy hierarchy; shared values deliver better ideas; and mobility increases connectivity, speed and dispersion of influence and response.

Those who care about what social progress needs to look like should start thinking with a new honesty based on these new realities—and use this honesty to reform from within. The role of business is central to this reform. Global corporations are now sufficiently powerful to form de facto states of their own: their systems are well-crafted and their people properly recruited; capitalism has made them efficient. Their challenges are to engage with their constituencies and to ensure a rectitude of conscience that legitimizes their assumed positions of leadership and influence. Engaged corporations within the age of engagement need to be transparent, bottom-up, values-led and rooted-in-action.

The age of citizenship may yet properly emerge from today’s age of engagement. But engagement is the first imperative. Tensions and polarities persist. Ideologies are not aligned. The world is neither balanced, nor fair; neither top-down, nor bottom-up. Technology is driving real social change, and at speed. Just as Marx saw an impending struggle between the owners and the workers, and the enlightenment saw the battle between reason and faith, so we now have to confront the polarities and extremities of our times in a constructive, open and honest way. From thesis and antithesis, we can find synthesis. This search from within deserves and demands an engaged society.

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