Winter 2010

By Larry Bridgesmith, J.D.

The Center for the Public Trust has spent a significant amount of time this past year attempting to more carefully define the “public trust” we seek to advance. Perhaps to a great degree, trust is like the proverbial “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” adage. Can trust be measured? Is public trust only a subjective concept incapable of being quantified? Does relativism creep in and render the idea of public trust illusory? Does it merely lie at the opposite pole of pornography: “I know it when I see it?”

We think not. Individuals who are trustworthy can be recognized by their behavior. Entities that warrant the public trust are identifiable by their practices, their policies and the principles which they do not merely pronounce, but embody in actual fact. Part of the difficulty with assessing public trust lies in our penchant for focusing on the negative. It is far easier to proclaim the absence of trustworthiness than it is to applaud its presence. Like the obsessive mother who only wants the best for her child, we often point out the one “A-” without acknowledging all the “As” that accompany it on the report card.

However, the more perplexing problem in recognizing trustworthy individuals and organizations is the lack of agreement on what constitutes the “public trust.” Is it merely ethical behavior? Public trust certainly demands it. Is it outstanding performance? Without excellence in outcome, what’s to be trusted? Are these two critical characteristics enough? Does public trust require a strong component of courage? Excellent performers who possess great traits of character without the courage to act consistently with their convictions are untrustworthy. Clearly, reducing “public trust” to its irreducible minimum is a huge task which requires the best thinking on the part of the best thinkers (and doers). The CPT is dedicated to convening and facilitating such conversations and is fully committed to a continuous improvement approach to defining, enhancing and recognizing necessary components of public trust. The CPT is also focused on identifying the purveyors of public trust and enhancing the performance that engenders it in individual leaders, professions and the organizations they serve.

Scandals will occur and frauds will be perpetuated. Self-interest will continue to subvert the public trust. Nonetheless, the CPT commits to expand its circle of influence in order to maximize a positive impact on the larger circle of concern surrounding this critical question. Regulations are not enough. Codes of conduct are only a beginning. Enforcement actions will never guarantee the public trust is restored. Rigorous pursuit of trustworthy behavior is essential if public trust is to prevail.

At the risk of oversimplification or short-circuiting the thorough definition and assessment process to which the CPT is committed, a worthy beginning for 2011 might be to resolve together to instill public trust in our own circles of influence. Like viral contagion, cultural change happens when individuals influence those who in turn influence others. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking phenomena reveal the incredible power of a single great idea which catches fire. One tells one, who tells another and soon millions are tuned into a concept that resonates with many because it is fundamentally true and consistent with the expectations of most. So it is with public trust.

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