Published on 26 July 2021
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Intractable challenges, systemic change, and the role of trust

Embracing systemic change and demanding a level of trust between government and citizens is important to ensuring past catastrophes like bush fires, city flooding and football riots don't happen again, writes Gill Kernick.

The West is experiencing first-hand the consequences of our failure to deal with the world’s intractable challenges. Climate change, poverty and inequality are no longer things that happen somewhere else, to be tackled with nicely packaged aid budgets for ‘less developed’ nations, whilst we continue business-as-usual. From fires in Australia and America and flooding in Europe, to ‘taking the knee’ and racist backlashes in the Euro football tournament, the consequences are playing out, not in some far-removed country, but in our backyard.  

But our societies do not have a good track record of solving such intractable challenges and it is difficult to see good outcomes without significant changes in our behaviour.  This will require embracing systemic change and will demand a level of trust between government and citizens that doesn’t currently exist.

Piecemeal versus systemic change

Often, approaches to change by policymakers and others are piecemeal. For example, carbon footprint reporting, or the publication of gender pay-gap statistics. Whilst important, given both the urgency and scale of change demanded, such methods are insufficient.

We need to become more effective at enabling systemic change, which will require a different approach and way of leading. 

Rather than looking at what is wrong with the system, we need to consider what the system reveals itself to be perfectly designed for. We need to work back from the actual outcomes, and begin to tackle the conditions holding the status quo in place. 

For example, diversity targets and pay-gap reporting will go some way to redressing inequality, but without fundamentally rebalancing power, by addressing perennial issues such as political funding and lobbying by the wealthy and powerful, or the revolving door between politics and institutions, it is doubtful we will see significant change.

Likewise, carbon footprint targets will go some way to impacting climate change but they are partial; until we move toward assessing an organisation’s performance against its generational impact we are unlikely to see significant behaviour change.

The table below articulates the key differences between piecemeal and systemic change.[i]

Turst 1

Systemic change will require quite radical behaviour change from citizens, which will demand more collaborative, organic, principles-based ways of working, embracing diverse views and create a collective sense of ownership. 

The role of trust

Operating this way will require a level of trust between citizens, government and institutions that is sadly lacking today.

The OECD maintains that ‘Trust is the foundation upon which the legitimacy of public institutions is built and is crucial for maintaining social cohesion.’  It is especially important for the success of policies that depend on behavioural responses from the public.  A report exploring the relationship between trust and responses to imposed restrictions in mobility across Europe during the pandemic concluded that ‘trust in governments is an important determinant of citizens’ compliance with public health policies, especially in times of crisis.’

In the UK, following a divisive Brexit, trust was already low at the beginning of the pandemic.  After an initial upswing, research indicates that trust in the UK government has declined throughout the pandemic. Dominic Cummings’ infamous Barnard Castle trip was a contributing factor. Does the impact of his individual actions show us a path forward?

The trust equation

Maister et al’s famous trust equation, devised to help individuals within organisations build trust, might hold some useful insights.  With slight tweaks to the original version, it can be fitted to a social and government context.

Trust 2

Thus trust is correlated to politicians’:

  • credibility (do citizens believe what they say),
  • reliability (do they act consistent with what they say and deliver what they promise), and
  • safety (do they care about citizens safety, health, and well-being),

and inversely correlated to:

  • Self-interest (are they acting in their own interest or the overall good of society).

Of course, politicians must balance complex competing interests and there are inevitably winners and losers. But, as we’ve seen through the pandemic, the public understand the trade-offs. What destroys trust is not the balancing of these complex tensions, but rather decisions driven by political self-interest rather than the public good.

Trust is built by individuals in positions of power operating consistently in the public interest.  It is not some amorphous and complex monolith, requiring complex policies and plans, but an accumulation of individual actions. Every action and interaction either builds or destroys trust. Whether it be Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak’s initial attempts to avoid self-isolation after being pinged, or the failure of the government to deal with the building safety crisis and ensure that citizens are safe in their homes, those in power all too often act in ways that destroy trust.

Just as Dominic Cummings’ single action dented the trust of a nation, so too could a series of single actions by individuals help rebuild it, and enable a more systemic approach to policy and behaviour change.  Doing so would take a level of self-awareness and willingness to move beyond self-interest those in power anywhere have not been demonstrating. Yet the signs of catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss, social fractures, and the continuing pandemic make the need for trust more urgent than ever.

[i] Kernick, G; 2021; Catastrophe and Systemic Change: Learning from the Grenfell Tower and Other Disasters, pp. 62 – 70; London Publishing Partnership.

Blog series: “The Grenfell Enquirer” by Gill Kernick

Image: Matt Palmer on Unsplash


Gill Kernick

JMJ Associate Master Consultant, Gill Kernick, works with senior executives in high hazard industries to develop the culture and leadership to prevent catastrophic events. Author of ‘Catastrophe and Systemic Change:...

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