The key to restoring trust in Irish politics is an informed public

Opinion: While public institutions have to take the lead in reviving trust, citizens must also engage

Tue, Jan 28, 2014, 00:01

We do not trust our public institutions. Some say this doesn’t matter too much: it was ever thus. Others argue lack of trust in public institutions has reached crisis point and is corrosive to society.

The actor/comedian Russell Brand made a case for giving up on our public institutions and the parliamentary democracies they underpin in a now infamous interview with Jeremy Paxman last November. Brand’s charm, eloquence and conviction made the interview a must-see event, as 10 million YouTube viewings confirm, but it also reflected the deep malaise in which the relationship between citizens and state now finds itself.

You could call what Russell Brand, and others, are advocating “conscientious apathy”. It is nihilistic, even anarchic, and what’s more it is quite seductive, since it thrives on inactivity, thus fitting in nicely with our consumer-convenience society.

Columnist and broadcaster, Vincent Browne, recently committed an article (Irish Times, January 15th) to the idea that the level of public disillusionment with Irish politics, and what he called our irrelevant parliament, is inadequate. He wants more disillusionment.

When I hear populist denigration of parliamentary democracy I am always minded of Churchill’s dictum that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

The Irish Times Public Perceptions poll, published in December, highlighted the considerable gap in many areas between public perception and the reality of public life. One significant finding was that the public had a wildly inaccurate understanding of the cost of politics.


Misperceptions
Where do such misperceptions come from? Repeated research shows that most people do not have a basic understanding of how the political and parliamentary system works. And yet they have a firmly negative view of this system that they admit to not understanding.

Most people depend on media to inform their understanding and their perception of the political system. And research shows the majority of media commentary on, and coverage of, politics is negative.

Of course the anger, even despair, of recent years have made it easy to denigrate our imperfect State and its imperfect institutions, but one must also ask if the authority, power and legitimacy of our institutions is to be subject to constant corrosion ( rather than simply critique), where do we think this power will go?

It is said that for any relationship to work, both parties need to invest in it. We read every day about the imperfection of public institutions, of politicians and public managers, but is there not also a duty on us, the citizens, to participate in this State-citizen partnership?

It is certainly not up to the citizens to take the first step in remedying this collapse of trust. The leadership must first come from public institutions, such as the Oireachtas, but for it to have any effect, citizens must remain receptive.

The Houses of the Oireachtas have for six years now been pursuing a policy of communicating and engaging with the public, the idea being that 80 years of relying on others to ensure we all have a good understanding of our parliament was not working, and so we had to become proactive.

A senior academic recently suggested to me that a national parliament has no competitor. I disagree. No less than private enterprise, all public institutions are competing for public trust and legitimacy. Indeed, public trust is their lifeblood and no amount of spin, marketing or surface-only branding can substitute for it for long.

Step by step, and against a backdrop of recession, the Oireachtas has built a broad-based approach that interests tens of thousands of people every year. Much of this focuses on facilitating media coverage, since most people choose to be informed (and sometimes misinformed), through the media. However, direct engagement – through schools and outreach, events, publications, social media, a TV channel, a smartphone app, a hugely popular visitor programme and an extensive website – means that it is now easy for each of us to achieve a reasonable understanding of the workings of parliament, imperfect as one may deem them to be.

It took decades of our history for us to arrive at a point where so many feel negatively towards institutions such as our national parliament. So reversing this trend will, no doubt, take a long time too.

About 20 years ago, the need for transparency in public administration became a mainstream concern. Since then, legislation and standards in this area have become commonplace and yet, in parallel, trust in public institutions has declined. Making information about institutions accessible is obviously progressive, but for there to be an impact on public trust, institutions themselves must also engage and change.


Vitality
The Irish Times survey of public life last December quoted “the great crusading US journalist Sam McClure”, who said that the vitality of a democracy depends on “popular knowledge of complex issues”.

This can be done. Unfortunately, the truth is that it may take years, even decades, to build a level of trust to sustain a popular knowledge of complex issues.

In an age that expects instant results, this may disappoint, but it remains the case that if there is a willingness on the part of citizens to connect with our public institutions and so to breathe life into them, it is by these means, rather than the promotion of disillusionment and despair, that public understanding and trust can be rebuilt.


Mark Mulqueen is head of communications at the Houses of the Oireachtas

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