In search of confidence to govern
Latin America today has a face of discontent and disappointment. More and more frequent are the images of desperate citizens taking to the streets, frustrated because their most basic needs have not been met. Drinking water. Electricity. Progress. All promises that were never fulfilled. Hopes that vanished when the leader in power took office.
The intensity and frequency of these incidents in the last decade does not respond to the discontent of a specific people, but reflects a larger, systemic problem: the generalized institutional failure that has not improved the quality of life in the region.
In recent years, the inequality gap in Latin America has widened. In the light of global affectations, Latin America fails. In the case of the pandemic, its lack of investment in public health infrastructure became evident, leaving more deaths per capita than anywhere else in the world.
This regional failure to achieve the desired improvement in living conditions translates into the lowest confidence index in the world. Only 2 out of 10 people respond that they trust the government. Worse still, the little trust that tends to be generated during electoral campaigns, loaded with hope, change and promises, quickly disappears. The social capital of newly installed governments no longer lasts 100 days.
In the corporate world it has been easier to recognize the value of trust and quantify it. A 2022 Deloitte report shares examples of large global companies that lost between 20% and 56% of their value –equivalent to about $70 billion– when they lost the trust of their market. Thus, there has been a growing trend in the business world to generate and rebuild trust in their organizations.
It is the political leaders in Latin America, and perhaps even the world’s leaders, who fail to understand and value the power of trust. But the benefit to governments that are seen as trustworthy is defined. When citizens trust their governments they pay their taxes, respect authority, participate, feel responsible for their communities, and are more accepting of changes in public policy, assuming they are consistent with their aspirations.
When citizens trust their governments they pay their taxes, respect authority, participate, feel responsible for their communities, and are more accepting of changes in public policy
Since Harvard, I have initiated extensive research on how to measure, manage and, if necessary, restore trust. For while, as in the business world, trust can vanish in an instant, it can also be restored. We have many examples of recent cases in which, with determined and sustained management, credibility and trust have been restored. However, this takes time. Time and commitment.
For this, it is necessary to understand that the way we relate to our environment has mutated. Technological innovations have changed, the way information is disseminated, how each individual perceives the role of government and his or her expectations. Even remote indigenous communities now have cell phones. More importantly, the way in which citizens identify with their rulers and the reasons why they place their trust in them have also changed.
Historical indices that have been used to measure trust in government have relied on a limited number of principles –such as integrity, competence, and a sense of fairness– and metrics that do not reflect how individuals function in society and their perception of government today. A recent study by Edward Glaeser at Harvard established that surveys traditionally used to measure trust are not effective. That is, those who respond that they do trust the government then do not have attitudes that evidence that trust, and the reverse is true.
Technological innovations, as well as the new ways in which individuals are part of society, require new and updated metrics to assess social sentiment
Trust is a deeply subjective concept and, as such, is easily interpreted in different ways, which represents a challenge in its measurement and evaluation. In this research, we are seeking to develop new metrics that, supported by complex computational models, seek to reflect what develops and establishes trust. A simple example is the value now attributed to the perception of authenticity. In the case studies we have analyzed, those leaders who use a method of communication that can be understood as natural and simple achieve higher levels of trust. The same is true of the profile of leaders, historically distant and unattainable. Once in power, they used to be expected to govern from “above”, from a distance. Today, closeness and proximity are required to establish that they share purposes with the society they serve and to generate trust.
The so-called pendulum of politics between the left and conservatives in Latin America is not happening in practice. What we have is a sea of frustrated and dissatisfied citizens looking to trust one side or the other. Technological innovations, as well as the new ways in which individuals are part of society, require new and updated metrics to assess social sentiment. Trust, properly understood and valued, is the powerful tool to gain support for implementing the structural changes that Latin America demands.