What is the impact of declining trust in institutions?

Johnny Chatterton, 10 November 2017


I think there is definitely a decline in trust, but what we’re finding through our work is that there is a growing hunger to build a fairer and better society. The problem we see is that there’s a disconnect between what people want and what institutions are able to do to respond to those desires.

And what do you think the implications of that are?

I think our democracy, and many western democracies, are in pretty bad shape. I think for the last few decades governments have failed to invest in the basic functioning of how states work which means that people in the most marginalised communities just don’t get their voices heard. So, I think sadly the reality of that is that there’s a democracy gap – the most affluent and privileged people get much more access to democracy than everyone else. The problem with that is obviously huge. It means that government services, government policies are shaped around the most privileged in society and that, I believe, is one of the root causes of the decline in trust.

Do you think that decline in trust in institutions affects charities as much as anyone else? More than anyone else?

I think it does. I think it affects organisations that hold power, that provide services and that people want to believe are looking out for them. I think the principal people to be concerned about this are our government and politicians. But I also think large NGOs need to understand that there’s growing scepticism [about] big bureaucracies and how they behave and what their intentions are.

How do you think charities, campaigning organisations can react to this situation?

By talking to people in marginalised communities, people who don’t get that involved in political life and campaigning, and asking them what their life is like and what they want to see change. In the last year, we’ve launched a training programme in Yorkshire. We launched just after we saw demand for our original programme, Campaign Bootcamp, grow to 7 applicants per spot, which was great but meant we had turn away 6 out of every 7 people who applied. So we’ve launched this new programme in Yorkshire to provide training to people who are in marginalised communities who have not done much campaigning, if any. And what is very interesting to us is that most of the groups of people we talk to don’t know of all the large charities that I’ve grown up with and admired, they’re just irrelevant.

It’s a roundabout way of giving bad news, which is I think one of the big things that big institutions need to recognise is they’re becoming increasingly irrelevant, especially in marginalised communities, and if they really want to challenge injustice in this country they need to change the way they work so that they are present and supportive to people, no matter where they are in the country.

Is your sense that they will change and adapt or that actually new organisations, new campaigning structures will come into being, which will take over that traditional role that big charities have had?

I have hope that they’ll adapt. But I don’t feel like that’s likely. And that’s because large organisations have a lot of internal incentives and processes and history, and that can restrict them changing the way they work. So I think it’s much more likely that it will be new organisations, small charities, small unformed groups even, just kind of people working together that will actually be at the forefront of building a fairer and better democracy.

What will the implications of that new landscape be for the way that civil society operates?

OK, so I think the implications of that could be huge, because it will mean that if these big organisations realise that they are not doing enough to support people in marginalised communities and they manage to change their behaviour to actually get into the communities, things could be great because these big organisations with a rich history will find a new area to work in and new relevance, and that will be good. That’s my optimistic hope.

That should terrify the leadership of large organisations, because their monopoly on relevance is declining rapidly.

I think what’s more likely is that small organisations will block buy this space, will do the best they can with limited resources and then gradually, over time, people will start to realise that these small organisations are much more effective and much more relevant to the world we now live in, which in turn would mean the decline of the larger organisations as people will naturally question what the point of them is.

So I think there is a real question to grapple with for larger organisations which is: what do we do? How do we make sure we’re really good at it? And what do we stop doing because we’re not going to be good at it? And my hope is that that these larger organisations will realise that they need to really go out and work with these groups that they’re not normally in touch with, especially in marginalised communities.

Presumably, the implication of that is that it’s an opportunity for smaller organisations to fill a space that previously they haven’t been able to fill.

Oh, absolutely. So I think there’s a huge opportunity for small organisations using new technology, finding crowdfunding and micro grants, to go out there and do fantastic work that would never have been possible when you needed a huge infrastructure behind you.

That question about infrastructure seems a really relevant one: it’s not just the decline in trust that allows that new situation, it’s new technologies and new ways of doing campaigning as well, right?

Right, totally. When I was growing up I thought you needed huge infrastructure behind you – press departments, big budgets, awesome contacts – you just don’t need any of that these days. Social media, basic websites, crowdfunding, you can do a huge amount with just a basic laptop and basic phone. And some of the best change has actually happened from those starts, so that’s both exciting for people who aren’t at big organisations and should terrify especially the leadership of large organisations, because their monopoly on relevance is declining rapidly.

Johnny Chatterton is co-founder and executive director of Campaign Bootcamp. Previously, Johnny campaigned at SumOfUs, Change.org, 38 Degrees and Burma Campaign UK.