The trust paradox

Although we think that “being open” will increase trust and transparency, the reverse is more likely.

I came to this paradoxical conclusion after reading an interesting piece on perverse economics [link; but summarised here to save you jumping around]: why the decreasing cost of something over time doesn’t mean that overall expenditure on it is reduced; instead usage goes up by a relatively larger rate—therefore so does overall expenditure.

It was first formally proposed by William Stanley Jevons in relation to coal production in the c19th and has been applied to lots of other resources including, in that linked piece, the cost of computers. Now I’m thinking about it in relation to the issues of trust in our public services and government.

We express a wish for our politicians to be more open—to share more about the detail of their lives, and not just at the lobbyist-lunching, shady-room-negotiating level. About them as people. We have social media and other channels now that make it faster and easier to do so. The boundary between their (and our) public and private lives gets fuzzy. We love this, when we see it serving our interests.

We have more direct access to our representatives. We can exchange a few words with a government minister via Facebook updates, or hear an opinion from the front bench even before the House does. We love that we can do this with our celebrities too, and we perhaps blur the categories at times. It’s all “public interest”, and the more open the better, hey?

And then things go wrong. With wholly predictable regularity. A public figure says something they shouldn’t. Perhaps something careless, a bit dumb, or misinformed, or—indeed—showing up actual malpractice in either a professional or personal capacity. The resources of a 100-hour working week, 200-mile commuting MP with a family and private life to manage are suddenly matched against sharp-eyed and keen-witted bloggers sitting at home with hours to spend forensically dissecting every statement, every inconsistency. And with no incentive to preserve any of those category boundaries, especially between professional and personal capacity. MPs are there to be kicked, particularly if they’re not of your favourite political colour.

You probably know the sort of thing I mean. The MP may not be whiter than white. But this was always our delusion that they would ever be. They are human. And they’ll get filleted in what amounts to asymmetric warfare. Openness goes up. Honesty and dishonesty are revealed. We amplify the dishonesty and ignore the rest. And trust goes down.

There are similar arguments at play with openness in relation to published data. Throwing everything over the wall creates the appearance of transparency. Surely it must increase our trust? But like a good astrologer we’ll expertly search for the material that confirms our thesis, and glide swiftly past the rest. And I’m not necessarily talking here about material that is genuinely in the public interest: the big fraud, the unambiguous cover-up—I’m talking about the trivial, the amusing, the petty contradictions that arise when serving many complex interests at the same time. The sieve that’s required to separate the two is a rare thing indeed.

Openness goes up. Trust goes down.

There are two ways this effect could be countered: by withdrawing openness (either outright or by stealth) or by drawing on the trusty old “sunlight=disinfectant” argument—that nobody will do anything stupid or wrong any more as they know they’ll be spotted. Good luck if you think the latter is more likely.