The Term Ahead, March 2019: Trust & Transparency

Date published: March 31, 2019

In March 2019, IPSA hosted the world’s first conference for international parliamentary regulators, bringing together 13 Parliamentary regulators from five continents to exchange ideas and good practice.

The theme of the conference was "Transparency and Trust" and included a panel discussion focussed on the relationship between transparency and public trust in politicians.

The panel was chaired by Dr Hannah White of the IFG and comprised Dame Margaret Hodge MP, Lord Daniel Finkelstein, Dr Peter Allen of the University of Bath and Marcial Boo of IPSA – an MP, a journalist, an academic and a regulator- who brought multiple perspectives on transparency and the difference it can make to public trust in politicians.

Marcial Boo championed transparency in the regulation of public funds but acknowledged the risk of the media focussing on the small numbers of non-compliance which could damage trust.

Dame Margaret considered that, while transparency is important for building trust, a system must prove itself worthy of trust and she noted that transparency can both help and hinder, especially in the era of fake news. Dame Margaret considered transparency to be essential for fairness and accountability but believes that a greater understanding of what MPs do would help to raise trust in politicians.

Lord Finkelstein argued that, while transparency is essential, it doesn’t necessarily lead to increased trust. He considers that the concept of reciprocity is also an important factor in the public’s level of trust and spoke of the need for transparency to create and show fairness in the relationship between the public and politicians – the public need to know that MPs work hard in the public interest.

Dr Allen explained that there is no definitive evidence of the link between transparency and trust, and that in true democracy a certain amount of distrust is healthy. Dr Allen agreed that teaching people about the practicalities of working as an MP could build trust, and that the independence of regulators is a key factor in building that trust.

The consensus of the panel was that transparency is essential to democracy, and that the withdrawal of information would undoubtedly damage public trust. Public bodies must demonstrate that they are worthy of trust and provide information in a way that can be understood and easily interpreted by the public.

The panellists agreed that increasing trust should be seen as a marathon not a sprint – trust takes time to build – and that politicians, academics, regulators and the media all have important roles to play in doing so.