Failing Institutions

The Pew Research Center recently issued a report saying trust in government is very low, with 22% saying they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, and 19% saying they are “basically content” with the federal government.

This result got a lot of coverage in the news…and a lot of commentary from anti-government conservatives and libertarians. An example is this blog posting: 80% of Americans don’t trust the federal government; time to dissolve the people and elect another? Such a posting raises a variety of questions, including what does it mean to “dissolve the people” and what kind of math gets you from 22% trusting the government all or most of the time to 80% distrusting the government?

But there’s another, bigger question here: how much trust do people today have in other institutions? In a time when Goldman Sachs, Toyota, the Catholic Church, and Tiger Woods (a sports and business institution in his own right) have been messing up big time in the eyes of the public, is distrust in government an anomaly or just part of a trend?

As it turns out, Pew had something to say about that in the same report:

While anti-government sentiment has its own ideological and partisan basis, the public also expresses discontent with many of the country’s other major institutions. Just 25% say the federal government has a positive effect on the way things are going in the country and about as many (24%) say the same about Congress. Yet the ratings are just as low for the impact of large corporations (25% positive) and banks and other financial institutions (22%). And the marks are only slightly more positive for the national news media (31%), labor unions (32%) and the entertainment industry (33%).

Ironically, that part of the report received considerably less mention in the main stream media. But rather than dwelling on why that might be, the more interesting question is why trust in so many institutions is now so low.

As I’ve noted before, many institutions are failing because they haven’t adapted to the ways our world has changed. One thing that’s striking about many of the big institutions finding themselves in hot water these days is that a big part of their problem appears rooted in a mistaken belief that they are able to tightly manage/control the information about problematic issues. Toyota had problems with car defects; it tried to hide them. The Church had problems with perverted priests; it tried to hide them. Goldman Sachs had problems with very risky investments and very shady dealings to get rid of them; it tried to hide them. Tiger Woods had a thing for cocktail waitresses; he tried to hide it.

In an earlier, less connected time, perhaps these things wouldn’t have become such big deals. Probably past experience in hiding problems had led the leaders of these institutions to try a similar approach in these cases.

However, they apparently didn’t realize that in today’s hyper-connected world it’s almost inevitable that bad things will come to light – whether it’s vehicle flaws, priests behaving badly, devious investment strategies, or adulterous affairs. And now when the news DOES come out, the impact is likely to be much greater than it might have been before the Internet and global communications – especially if it’s apparent there was a cover-up involved.

These cases are all examples of how the world has changed but the people in leadership positions – who generally came to power the old fashioned way – were caught unaware of those changes. They may have achieved success by following the old rules, but times have changed and many of the old rules no longer apply.

Interestingly, I discussed this recently with a friend who used to handle corporate communications for a very large company. This friend had observed the same thing in their work:

(When I was there)…our CEO and other execs still believed you could “control the message.”  It was a never ending battle to try to enlighten them to the realities of the wired world.  Bottom line, it’s more convenient for them (and they are a proxy for all big business, the Church, etc) to try to perpetuate the command-and-control, one-way approach to communicating than to face up to the fact that there is no control and that “managing” their constituents effectively requires transparency, engagement and a true alignment between rhetoric and behavior.  All of that is just too much work, and too threatening, for them to accept. It’s a brotherhood of ostriches — and sadly (ironically?), they’re proud of it.

So what does the future hold?

I think this time is like any other in which great change has taken place. Some people and institutions will adapt to change and thrive; others will fail to adapt and fall by the wayside, deserted by their former supporters and clients.

Some may loudly protest the change and uncertainty of today’s world. They may even gain enough influence to hamper some institutions’ ability to adapt to these changes. But they can’t stop the change itself. In attempting to turn back the clock and to resurrect an illusory past they will be much like a bunch of Americans in the Panama Canal Zone back in 1964: all they are likely to accomplish is a quicker demise of the institutions they had hoped to preserve.

I’ve never been a believer in the so-called “Wisdom of the Market” as the term applied to Wall Street. But I do believe in the idea as it applies to transformational times and ideas. When the times are changing, the ones who understand and adapt to those changes will be the ones who thrive in what comes.

In the end we will be left with a combination of old institutions that adapted and new institutions that saw a better way and followed it. Everything else will just be history.

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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