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Is transparency a necessary condition to build and restore citizen and civil society trust in governance and democracy?

Throughout Europe, there is a growing demand for effective forms of citizen engagement and decentralisation in policy-making to increase trust and engage increasingly diverse populations.

This volume addresses the relationship between trust and transparency in the context of multi-level governance. Drawing on fieldwork from the UK, France and Germany, this comparative analysis examines different efforts to build trust between key actors involved in decision-making at the sub-national level. It outlines the challenges of delivering this agenda and explores the paradox that trust might require transparency, yet in some instances transparency may undermine trust.

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Trust is perhaps one of the most contested and nebulous concepts within contemporary academic research. Grimmelikhuijsen and colleagues (2013: 577) note that ‘across and even within disciplines, a myriad of definitions, concepts, and operationalizations are being used in research’ and therefore providing clarity in terms of what we mean and understand when discussing trust is itself challenging. Levi (1998: 79, quoted in Newton 2007: 343), for example, noted that trust ‘is not one thing and it does not have one source; it has a variety of forms and causes’. Any academic journal article, monograph or edited volume which directly or indirectly engages with questions of trust is relatively incomplete without a section or chapter devoted to what we mean by trust. Rousseau and colleagues (1998: 394), for example, tackled this challenge head-on in their attempt to develop a multidisciplinary view of trust which provides ‘clear boundaries to usefully inform research and theory’. They settle on a definition where trust is characterised as ‘a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another’ (Rousseau et al, 1998: 395).

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The research project that provides the source for this book is first and foremost a comparative one. According to Swanson (1971: 145), ‘thinking without comparison is unthinkable. And, in the absence of comparison, so is all scientific thought and scientific research’. Ragin (1987: 6) contends that comparison allows identification of the similarities and differences between political phenomena. Furthermore, ‘this knowledge provides the key to understanding, explaining, and interpreting diverse historical outcomes and processes and their significance for current institutional arrangements’. The next three chapters exploring our cases are designed to fulfil the aims identified by Ragin, and the final chapter brings together our findings. This chapter provides the foundations for this comparative analysis. The first section will position the approach adopted in the second half of the book within the context of comparative social research. The second section will begin to introduce our three cases, providing an overview of their wider context. The final section features introductions to the multi-level government contexts within each of the three country cases and specifically the six territorial cases that are the primary focus of our research.

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The health of trust – in its various configurations and conceptualisations – and questions as to whether it is in decline, have been a consistent feature of academic research across a wide range of disciplines since the 1960s. Interest has often centred on assessing the impact of specific events or crises on the state of trust, for example, the 2007–8 financial crisis and the rise of populism across the world (Ziller and Schübel, 2015; Algan et al, 2017; Hosking, 2019; Geurkink et al, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic which engulfed the world from early 2020 sparked further interest in trust-related research, as Devine and colleagues (2021: 276) note, in terms of the impact of the presence or absence of trust on government responses to the pandemic, but also the impact of the pandemic itself on trust. A key feature of this wide-ranging literature has been attempts to understand the role that political trust performs and the impact of its presence or absence. For example, Devine and colleagues (2020: 2) note the key distinction between trust, mistrust and distrust. They point to the characterisation provided by van der Meer and Zmerli (2017: 1) that trust plays the dual role as the ‘glue that keeps the system together’ and the ‘oil that lubricates the policy machine’, and mistrust or ‘political scepticism’ can underpin engagement and accountability.

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This chapter applies the trust–transparency matrix outlined in Chapter 2 to the case of France. It draws on a nationwide survey conducted in October 2016, as well as 38 interviews carried out in the two regions Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Bretagne from 2017 to 2018. The first section provides an overview of the received literature on trust and transparency, while the second presents cross-national survey findings that portray France as, in most cases, a critical case of mistrust. In the third section, we present findings of the nationwide survey conducted by YouGov, while the fourth section drills down into the interviews in the two regions. After a discussion of civil society, the chapter situates France in the overall context of the trust–transparency matrix and concludes by assessing the challenges that lie ahead in terms of rebuilding trust and role of transparency.

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For a long time German public opinion displayed high rates of trust in Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU party, as well as the federal government. In recent years, however, there have been signs of a general decline in trust, though the evidence in Germany is much less conclusive than in the UK or France. This chapter provides data to support the existence of a solid foundation of political trust in Germany at all territorial levels of the political system. At the same time, the data (whether that of private enterprises, like the Edelman Trust Barometer, or public institutions, such as Eurobarometer) casts doubt on the enduring features of trust in the national government, the parliament or political institutions in general. The chapter overviews national trends of trust and transparency in Germany. It then offers a closer comparison in the two distinct Länder of Hesse and Saxony Anhalt. Hesse is an affluent, dynamic land with a rising population, and is home to the dynamic metropolis Frankfurt, as well as a vibrant business community and associative life. Saxony-Anhalt, on the other hand, is economically stagnant with a shrinking population and problems of multicultural community integration.

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The decline of trust has become a dominant narrative within both the contemporary academic literature and the media. Onora O’Neill (2002: 8), as part of her 2002 BBC Reith Lectures, observed that sociologists and journalists have reported that ‘mistrust and suspicion have spread across all areas of life’ and therefore ‘loss of trust has become a cliché of our times.’ In a September 2018 address to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, diagnosed that the world was suffering from a ‘bad case of Trust Deficit Disorder’ and that people’s trust in institutions at both the national and international level was at ‘breaking point’ (UN Secretary General, 2018, cited in Jennings et al, 2019). Evidence for the perceived crisis in trust is frequently provided by national and international surveys: for example, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer (2020) reported a ‘trust paradox’ where strong economic performance was accompanied by a stagnation of trust in key institutions, such as government and the media.

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In the previous chapter, trust was defined as much by its linkage with other concepts as by its own inherent properties. This is especially the case with trust and transparency, the core relationship we explore in this book. Rather than straightforward explanations in terms of independent, intermediary and dependent variables, we present trust as a contextually and institutionally contingent phenomenon based on the perceived competence and, to a lesser extent, benevolence and honesty of government and other actors within governance networks. What we label as the trust–transparency matrix presents a general heuristic, which facilitates carrying out cross-national multi-level comparisons of trust and transparency. The chapter is divided into four sections. The first examines contemporary approaches to defining and conceptualising transparency. The second explores the range of existing approaches to studying transparency within contemporary research. The third section examines the trust–transparency nexus, and existing studies designed to explore the link between increased transparency and levels of trust. The final extended section introduces the trust–transparency matrix, drawing on the debates explored in the current and previous chapters, which will be operationalised in the second section of the book.

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One of the central themes of Boris Johnson’s speech on the morning of 13 December 2019, following his party’s landslide election victory, was trust, and specifically the trust placed in his government by voters who had previously never voted for the Conservative Party. Despite Brexit’s almost all-encompassing domination of the political agenda in recent years, the decline of political trust in the UK can be characterised as representing a longer-term phenomenon (Whiteley et al, 2016). It has been portrayed by the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, as the latest in a long line of events over the past 20 years that have ‘shattered’ public trust in politics, from the Iraq War in 2003 to the high-profile MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 via the financial crisis in 2007–8 (Kuenssberg, 2020). Furthermore, Brexit has been supplanted from the political agenda – even if only temporarily – by the COVID-19 pandemic, and once again the narrative around the decline of trust has come to the fore. Although Jennings (2020) noted an initial ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect of the crisis, trust has steadily been eroded. The question of transparency has had a lower profile in terms of both academic and public debate. The primary focus around questions of transparency in the UK context have been the measures introduced in the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which came into force in January 2000 (Worthy and Hazell, 2017).

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Local associations are a key vehicle for participation in civil society. They operate at a distance from the state, the market and families, with varying degrees of independence and dependence. They are sites of social action, expressing both solidarity and contestation. They bring groups of people together around common interests and shared activities. They may also articulate conflicts and issues of debate. Many are visible in terms of their organisation, membership and outcomes. Others are less visible, more loosely organised, or exist ‘below the radar’ (McCabe et al 2010). Associations are characterised by a diverse range of actors, repertoires and agendas. At the local level, they have a close identification with place, they depend largely on local social ties and operate mainly within the limits of local space. They are an important constitutive element in most understandings of civil society and its local expressions. But the boundaries between civil society, the state and market are not easy to draw. There are ebbs and flows in the voluntary and statutory sectors as funding fluctuates, partnerships form and dissolve, and as the contexts for voluntary action change. Lewis (1999: 268) concludes that the boundaries between state and civil society became increasingly blurred in the 1990s. In a parallel process, some voluntary associations have had to become more competitive, market-driven and business-like (Han 2017). As discussed in Chapter 1, conceptual debates about state dominance or marketisation of the third sector tend to prioritise the framework of the national state, and scales well above the local.

The impact of these processes below the level of local authorities is relatively under-researched.

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