A big trust test for those in power

Trust is a vital commodity in politics. This is not trust as honesty. It is trust that the politician will act effectively and, broadly, in voters’ interests. Losing that trust loses office. A report this morning highlights a rising trust issue for politicians.

Phil Heatley showed us what political trust is. He spent small sums of taxpayers’ money on personal items. It was a lapse of personal probity and a bad look. But Key affirmed his trust that Heatley can do the job by reinstating him as soon as he had an excuse. Key calculated Heatley’s peccadilloes will not count against National in the next election.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer set a trust test last week with his Law Commission’s report on alcohol. Public distrust of the law has grown because of alcohol-fuelled larrikinism, some of it lethal. (Add to that a rational worry: scientific evidence that excess alcohol damages young brains.)

Sir Geoffrey’s test is to balance freedom and social harmony and equally avoid anarchy and the nanny-state. Alcohol is both a dangerous drug and a harmless social lubricant. Principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft quotes millennia of oldies’ complaints about wild youth.

Simon Power, the cabinet’s median-man (and this week a World Economic Forum “young world leader”), has to set that balance.

As with politicians, so with their public servants. What counts is not accounting for paper clips but whether government agencies — departments and Crown entities — deliver services effectively and in ways that enhance citizens’ collective and individual welfare.

Long-lived firms know this. Those which build trust among customers are more likely to do well over the longer term.

In fact, capitalism depends on trust to function well: political scientist Francis Fukuyama devoted a book to that point. In modern national and international economies that requires the rule of law because you must deal with people you do not know. China has yet to work that out, as Fonterra and Rio Tinto found. “Western” firms are growing warier about their partners’ suppliers’ suppliers.

Stir in globalisation of people, money and information — and bewilderingly rapid innovations in communications technology. Today’s societies and economies are highly interconnected and interdependent, probably now inextricably so.

Thus, Greece’s financial meltdown posed a “contagion” threat to Australasian banks’ capacity to borrow abroad and lend to firms and households here.

The internet is weaving a web around us, collecting and collating staggering amounts of personal information through the likes of Facebook, online banking and other online activity, including by and with government agencies.

Modern computing enables businesses to mine and match those “big data”, thereby creating a “data-centred economy”. Governments can mine and match, too.

This digital revolution has greatly enriched us and enabled customised service by firms and governments. It has also created a new vulnerability. Ten countries’ privacy agencies, including ours, last month heavily condemned Google for selecting popular email contacts from Gmail without users’ permission and making them public by default for its “Buzz” social network launched in February. They noted Google was not alone in such activity. The United States Federal Trade Commission warns that many peer-to-peer networks risk exposing users to identity theft and fraud.

Privacy agencies around the world are pushing for concerted action.

Nations are vulnerable, too. Increasingly they need a smooth-functioning internet just to function.

Some analysts reckon future wars may be fought as much in cyberspace, through attacks on electronic and data systems, as in airspace and on ground. The United States claims China already frequently hacks into its security systems. Imagine the mayhem if a banking system or air control system is immobilised.

A Law Commission issues paper in March touched on some of these issues and suggested a separate law on data-matching. Power, who is privacy minister, worries about live blogging from court hearings.

A survey for Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff published today sounds a warning for politicians here and more work for the hyperactive Power.

Today’s release registers the by-now usual high level of worry about misuse by a business of personal information, by purloining it or acquiring it by deceit or using it for a purpose other than it stated.

But, importantly, it also records for the first time similarly high public concerns about government agencies’ huge stores of information.

If something goes seriously wrong in government cyberspace, that will not only undermine trust in a part of the government or a minister or two but potentially also undermine the very legitimacy of governing institutions and those at the top.

Trust holds a democracy together. Maintaining cyber-trust is Power’s job. It might turn out — possibly quite suddenly one bad day — to be the biggest job in the government.