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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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The greater complexity of decision making produced by local governance presents researchers with the challenge of explaining how policy is made in local networks of key actors. This process is even more complex when examined cross-nationally between Britain and France. Policy network theory is a useful tool for describing these relationships, but is less able to explain them. A more fruitful approach is to use the tools of network analysis to indicate the structure of networks and apply models of how power is exercised in them. The advantage of this method is that it can analyse the nature of networks comparatively, taking into account the different traditions and institutions of British and French sub-national politics. Six models can explain how new networked relationships in localities operate: pluralism, neo-pluralism, policy advocacy coalition theory, new institutionalism, the bureaucratic politics model and the local effect. To reflect the variety of practices between policy sectors and countries, a multitheoretic framework is offered. Though the article sees networks as largely epiphenomenal, networks can affect policy outcomes through the emergence of trust through personal contacts and the intersection of political and social networks.

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This chapter considers the contemporary decline of political trust and the potential existential threat that it poses to democracy. Drawing on comparative analysis from the UK, France and Germany it examines governance-trust configurations and their likely propensity to foster co-production and co-creation between state and civil society. A key finding is the extent to which the development of trust within civil society varies as much within as between states. The analysis also highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the erosion of trust. The study argues that potential solutions for restoring political trust and reversing the perceived decline of democracy have civil society at their heart and include the adoption of more diverse and effective forms of citizen engagement. Yet the discussion also warns that this is fraught with difficulties. Notably, the adoption of co-creation or co-production to build trust with civil society actors is likely to be most challenging in new governance regions where a shared history or identity is largely absent.

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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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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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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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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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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 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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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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