Mathew Lowry

Over on iBlog, Claus used a term that caught my attention:

Networks such as ERRIN, which is funded by membership contributions and invests in what I would call “TRUST 2.0.”, help to establish that collective understanding and culture of cooperation and facilitate successful involvement in EU projects.

While he freely admitted that “Trust 2.0 does not exist …”

… I was just looking for an expression that could describe what I mean by people interacting on a regular basis and systematically learning from each and developing a proper trust base, learning what they can expect from each other and what not, as juxtaposed to ad hoc interaction …”

… my point would be that perhaps it should, despite the fact that the last thing anyone needs is another buzzword with a “2.0” tacked on at the end.

The term caught my attention because it could be part of the vocabulary needed to track the way relationships between people have changed with the advent of online social networks. How many “friends” on Facebook really qualify for the term? Am I really “well connected” now because I have a lot of connections on my LinkedIn profile? I have my doubts.

The concept of trust interests me in this context because research shows that, these days, people trust people defined as “like them” more than anyone else – more than, say, previously trusted figures such as their doctor, government, and the media:

“Consumer recommendations are a powerful thing as Edelman found with the Trust Barometer where “a person like me is now the most credible spokesperson for companies” and Forrester with “recommendations from consumers” being the most believable form of advertising.”

– Nielsen research confirms Edelman and Forrester

This is significant because social networks allow everyone to find and interact with people “like them” more easily than even before. Noone in your village, or family, or company, may understand you, but all you need to do is log on to your social network, or visit your favourite blog, and you’re among people just like you, people you can trust. People who say what you think – perhaps more loudly, or more persuasively than you – so you end up thinking what they say.

This leads to groupthink, of course, as online communities close in on themselves and shut out signals that could disturb the comfortable worldview being developed inside.

As I pointed out in a discussion on Stalney’s blog, this has significant consequences for any attempts to explain how the EU works, or should be reformed:

… how many British people actually understand, say, the Parliamentary Select Committees? … Many don’t, and they find that perfectly OK, whereas the complexity of Brussels is considered a huge problem. The difference is one of trust. Most people trust their national setups … but apply different standards to the EU level. They do not trust it, and so feel threatened by their lack of understanding of it.

… [When people don’t trust an] institution, then everything about that institution is viewed with distrust. So anything the institution says to convince people that it *is* democratic, that it *is* useful, is automatically pre-filtered negatively.

(See also previous post on how eurosceptics reacted to the launch of as if it was an attempt to ‘take over’ the EU blogosphere).

So maybe the EU’s trapped in a cycle of not being trusted, and therefore unable to make its case. And that’s a shame, because – as Stanley pointed out in another post – the EU does a lot of very useful things at the specialist level, which are by definition very boring to the vast majority of people. Stanley’s post was about “control personnel responsible for ensuring the safety of food and feed”, but the same applies to professions as diverse as cancer researchers and transport planners.

So perhaps, instead of organising massive publicity campaigns, the EU should ensure that participants in EU projects talk to everyone around them – their friends and family, and via their online communities – about how, and why, the EU adds value to the work they do. Then, maybe, trust will develop bottom-up. Top-down doesn’t seem to be working.

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  1. Dear Mathew

    Thanks for this exposé on trust. I fully agree with you and believe more transparency and more communication about what the EU does and why, not only by the institutions, can help to address the trust deficit. Despite all rhetoric about transparency and the need for dialogue with citizens it seems to me, however, that we still keep getting too much propaganda from top down instead of an open and honest discussion. There should also be honesty on where the EU fails and why and what can be done to improve its record.
    In general I think it has improved a lot recently and I credit, for instance, Margot Wallström for showing how this new transparency could look like in her blog. She also helps to show the human face of the Commission. By the way, another example of how a serious approach to openness and steady communication via blogging can help to bring up approval rates for politicians and strengthen the trust in the institutions they serve is the blog of the former MEP and now Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb. On the other hand I understand that institutions may be afraid of exposing too much of their inner reflections or controversial debates, since it may also hurt their standing. But it is certainly also a generational question with the young having more confidence in breaking the boundaries imposed by established hierarchies and institutional prerogatives. While we may not change the world and certainly not the EU institutions, we could see ourselves as part of a growing movement that may well do just that.
    Your i-blogger

  2. When talking about EU projects one has to point to the fact that the European Commission itself has not yet managed to publish a single website with a simple list of all projects it funds in its different policy areas. In most DGs it does not even exist for their own policy areas. Certainly something the next Commission has to push for (and with more power than Commissioner Kallas now).

  3. I worked for years in and around the issue you rightly highlight, and not once was Kallas mentioned…

    In fact, those responsible for communications didn’t appear that interested either, although they do have stories on the Commission home page . Just the tip of the iceberg, but better than nothing.

    What would help is ‘projects by theme and country’ (“this is what the EU is supporting in the areas that you care about in your country“), but that would require back-office reengineering across multiple DGs, among other things. It’s actually easier than it sounds, but it’s not easy.

    Apart from the missing IT, you need to factor in that communications is generally just not on the radar of the people responsible for the projects themselves. Partly because they are forward-focused (the next Call, the next proposals …), while communication needs to look more at project results, which come near and after project end. And partly because most of them just aren’t into communications, and get little or no recognition for making an effort.

  4. Mathew,

    A comment with reference to one of your earlier postings, “pearls in the mudslinging”. You associate my views, posted on the EU Referendum forum, on the lack of a european demos with “xenophobia”, albeit with a question mark. Firstly, can I assure you that, at least in my personal case, I do not subscribe to xenophobia, racism or any of the other characteristics with which it would be convenient to smear those of us who have a robust view of what constitutes democracy. Secondly, just as an example of what I mean by the demos comment – the UK Conservative party have an embarrassing problem as to which grouping in the EU “parliament” they should be part of. The fact that the main UK opposition party, which has historically formed many of the UK governments, is clearly not comfortable in any of the EU groupings means that the “shared values” are not deep enough. [ And – no, I am not a supporter of the Conservatives. And – yes, there are many other examples that could be quoted. ]



  5. Elf, I meant the question mark. You weren’t the only one to pull me up on the question “Xeniophones?”.

    As I made clear in the comment stream on the relevant post, I don’t paint all eurosceptics with a ‘xenophobe’ brush.

    The point you make re: the demos is valid, as I originally said, but noone has yet answered my question:

    How shared must those values be, I wonder, and who decides this?

    PS If you want to continue this conversation, can we have it on the right post? Thanks! 😉

  6. Mathew, I think your sentence really sums it up very well: this is what the EU is supporting in the areas that you care about in your country

    This should be the Communication priority number one for 2009. And not climate change (which I feel is rather over-communicated and distant to voters).

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