We probably all agree that trust is a fundamental “glue” of positive interpersonal relations.

Trust also enables the “social compact” between ourselves and those we select and empower to govern us.

And all the elements of trust – honesty, transparency, good intention, dependability – apply to both situations.

As a relatively recent transplant to New Zealand, I’m wondering whether Kiwis are placing too much trust in their local elected bodies … and even in some of their fellow citizens who take private actions that have significant public impact.

Specifically, I’ve been looking at a variety of examples of local body enforcement – or non-enforcement – of environmental and public health mandates and regulations. And I’m beginning to wonder …

  • Whether citizens should continue to merely trust – as I sense many do – that their elected leaders and fellow citizens, absent persistent and skeptical outside scrutiny, will routinely act in the broad public interest; and,
  • Whether local officials should continue to routinely trust that regulated individuals and businesses will faithfully “do right” out of conscience or some sense of civic responsibility, versus an expectation of diligent enforcement of applicable rules.

Over and over, I hear “regulators” in local bodies express a strong preference to accommodate the parties they are supposed to regulate. They use expressions like “work things out,” “negotiate,” “persuade,” “collaborate,” “build goodwill,” “cooperate” etc. They assume that they’re dealing with “good apples” whose intentions are honourable, even if momentarily somehow clouded or misguided.

The other day I was chatting with a senior manager with regulatory duties in an area council … someone I take to be totally dedicated to public service. I commented that, from my American perspective, Kiwi “regulators” appeared to be unusually trustful of those whose behavior – as builders, as dairy farmers, as handlers of hazardous materials, as irrigators, etc – they were supposed to monitor and ensure as proper. He replied that I was indeed too cynical, and that he could count on one hand, at most two, the instances in his decades-long career where he had encountered a really bad apple … a malevolent violator of the rules.

However, the very day of this conversation, the Housing Minister of the National Party – hardly the party naturally inclined to regulation – announced that he was considering more rigorous regulation of the building industry because of its recent and continuing sins.

OK, call me a cynic, but I think there are more and more “bad apples” out there. People who are perfectly mindful and deliberate as they cut corners, circumvent rules and policies, and demur from voluntary actions in the public interest. As economic pressures mount, people get stressed, standards tighten, and the ability to profit from malfeasance increases, there will be more and more cases where bad actors will emerge.

And what I see in the face of that is a continuing disinterest on the part of local regulators to interpret and enforce existing rules vigorously and unswervingly, especially as these apply to the environment and public health. They would rather “have a chat” or “work things out” with the offender. And if that fails, seek the mildest possible penalty … as with dairy farmers who habitually pollute waterways.

Yes, it’s unfortunate if an inclination toward trust must be replaced with an inclination toward wariness. But I think that’s a mindshift that needs to be considered by public officials with regulatory responsibilities. Misplaced trust carries too high a social cost. These days, there’s just too much to be gained by breaking or skirting the rules.

And yes, much more can be done to publicly identify and praise the good apples, thereby setting new norms for public behavior.

But at the end of the day, I’m afraid we need more watch-dogging and less accommodating.

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1 Comment

  1. A good example of where trust (by officials) has led to a costly outcome is the tyre pile in Napier. 10 minutes of independent checking would have uncovered that the original idea (baling tyres to send to China) was hairbrained and that the activity was on ground illegally occupied. But no – its was hailed in front page news to be a saviour for the problem of what to do with tyres. The rest is history. Now the idiot has vamoosed and the costs will be borne by taxpayers and ratepayers. Even had the "authorities" acted promptly when the pile was growing the cost of this debacle might have been minimised. And after spending millions trying to eradicate Ross River virus we have allowed a breeding ground nestled into the Napier city environment. Brilliant! (not)

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