Hazards and Institutional Trustworthiness: Facing a Deficit of Trust

By La Porte, Todd R.; Metlay, Daniel S. | Public Administration Review, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

Hazards and Institutional Trustworthiness: Facing a Deficit of Trust


La Porte, Todd R., Metlay, Daniel S., Public Administration Review


We live in a time when institutions of all kinds are instruments of great power and are often the objects of deep suspicion. Not surprisingly, scholars and political commentators have noted that the public increasingly distrusts many of those organizations. Indeed, for some of them, the crisis of trust is especially acute, coloring and constraining virtually all their actions and choices. How might they respond not only to maintain but also to enhance the level of trust they are accorded?

The Problem of Trust

In proposing answers to that question, we draw heavily from a study commissioned by former Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins (SEAB, 1993). Recognizing that the Department of Energy (DOE) was one of the institutions facing a serious deficit of trust, Watkins established a task force to explore how the DOE might take steps to increase public trust and confidence in the agency's programs for managing commercially generated radioactive waste as well as the huge volume of radioactive and toxic wastes associated with the manufacture of nuclear weapons. (See gray box on page 343 for a description of those programs.) Watkins' successor, Hazel R. O'Leary, has continued to place building trust among her highest priorities (DOE, 1994).

In many respects, Watkins and O'Leary had to address issues common to most organizations. For example, how can trust be sustained when strong ideological and policy differences about the organization's central direction, mission, and goals divide key stakeholder groups from each other as well as from the agency itself? In other respects, however, maintaining (and recovering) trust in its radioactive waste management activities presents special and unavoidable challenges for the DOE.(1)

1. There is increasing hostility to current or future operations based on learning about past agency practices.(2)

2. Operations are beneficial but hazardous in their design, that is, the work is intrinsically dangerous.

3. Hazards are likely to extend well after benefits have been gained.

4. Overall success or failure of the operations may not be well understood for perhaps three or four work generations.

5. There is reasonably rapid change in the technical aspects of the work, either in the core technologies or in information about the environment where they are deployed.

Of course, organizations other than the DOE confront many, if not all, of these same challenges. This article should, therefore, be of particular interest to those who manage or must deal with such agencies or firms.

Much of the work on trust carried out so far focuses on the relations between individuals in general social settings, between employees and managers in corporate life, between parties in economic exchanges, or between citizens and broad institutions of governance.(3) Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the relationship of trust between citizens and stakeholders, on the one hand, and administrative agencies or firms, on the other. A serious analytical shortfall exists in our understanding of the bases for institutional trustworthiness and about the conditions that would reduce serious deficits in public trust and confidence - a situation akin to betrayal in individual relations.

Because of this analytic shortfall, terms such as trust and confidence, which are understood intuitively, elude crisp and precise definition. Thus they can be used with wonderful rhetorical ambiguity.(4) The following notions provide the initial conceptual touchstone for our discussion here (SEAB, 1993; see also La Porte, 1994, Keller and La Porte, 1994):

* Trust is the belief that those with whom you interact will take your interests into account, even in situations where you are not in a position to recognize, evaluate, and/or thwart a potentially negative course of action by "those trusted."

* Confidence exists when the party trusted is able to empathize with (know of) your interests, is competent to act on that knowledge, and will go to considerable lengths to keep its word. …

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