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Low Trust in Institutions in a Churning Sea of Rapid Change

Recently, I found myself examining data on the loss of trust among the American public in major institutions. My search was partly motivated by examining whether the increased public discourse about the value of higher education was producing a loss of trust in higher education institutions. My search reminded me of the size of the decline in trust in major institutions (e.g., newspapers, the military, the church or organized religion, the Supreme Court, or Congress) over the past years in the US. Further, US millennials report lower trust of other people than prior cohorts at the same age.

Unknown, at least to me, is whether this loss of trust is connected with the large-scale disruption of several institutions by technology. Whole industries have been altered in major ways, with successful long-term organizations displaced by new startups. Is the lack of trust connected with the apparent slowness of the institutions to react to rapid social and technological changes?

The delays in getting government websites functional, in bringing modern software systems for agency processes, in reflecting multicultural perspectives — these and others occupy news stories frequently. Is trust eroding because of the contrast between the rate of change in our tech-based lives versus in that part of our lives that has no such foundation?

Higher education in 2012 was heavily focused on whether fully-online education was a disruptive force and would create whole new organizations certifying degree-level learning. Here at Georgetown, we bet that the deep formative experiences possible with strong faculty mentoring a residential undergraduate population would persist. As I write, the external environment remains filled with rapid change, and continuous vigilance about the right way forward is needed. Can we change fast enough to survive but slow enough to do so wisely?

The rate of technological change breeding new organizations produces an interesting puzzle. While the external environment of many institutions is undergoing rapid change, most of these institutions were not designed for such external environments. Their deliberative natures are valuable in choosing the right way forward when the way forward lasts for decades. When improvement arises from speedy iterative changes, they sometimes seem too slow. When there is also little trust in such institutions, the slow, deliberative nature might breed beliefs about incompetence.

So, increasingly we seem to see venerable institutions not trusted by stakeholders who are arguing for rapid change. Ideally, such institutions need to develop ways to make quick decisions when necessary, even when they were not designed to do so. In the meantime, it seems clear that the way forward requires unusual transparency by leaders of those organizations, a deep devotion to dialogue, carefully designed gatherings of those stakeholders with divergent perspectives, and a repeated communication of the basic mission that animates traditional devotion to the institution.

2 thoughts on “Low Trust in Institutions in a Churning Sea of Rapid Change

  1. “Is trust eroding because of the contrast between the rate of change in our tech-based lives versus in that part in our lives that has no such foundations.”

    While the contrast of pace may play a role, I cannot help but think it is more the disrupters themselves and a cultural shift. That is, for disrupted to be successful, they must actively foster distrust. They must make the status who seem inadequate or worse for them to be seen as “improved.”

    And culturally, “disrupters” have become heroes. Thus, there are more of them and that itself breeds a larger culture of “distrust” of existing institutions. Or at least a willingness to suspend disbelief in the value of the status quo.

    It’s also the case of the seen and unseen. We can see Amazon and other ways the Internet has changed our lives. But we don’t see all the failed efforts and billions lost by those who also said they were going to revolutionize and disrupt. They failed because disruption isn’t always and everywhere an intrinsic good. And though some existing companies were slower, their measured and considered adoption proved to be more successful.

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