Building Trust In Public Institutions


The defining feature of public institutions is impersonal trust-mediating rational agencies assigned to perform specialised tasks in society. Human life flourishes in interactions with each other and builds trust in public life. Trust increases the efficiency of institutions. The attachment of Nepalis to a variety of interactive economic, civic and political institutions is vital for coordinating their actions and minimising transaction costs. Building trust in leadership and key institutions for their ability to respond to societal challenges overcomes the crisis of legitimacy and enhances their utility and rationality. Public institutions of Nepal are obliged to perform constitutional duties impartially, tackle common challenges, protect the most vulnerable and hold wisdom to shape a common future. This means non-partisan formation of institutional leadership is essential. 

Mark. E. Warren argues “trusting an institution amounts to knowing that its constitutive rules, values and norms are shared by participants and that they regard them as binding.” Ironically, the peril of fading public trust on public institutions of Nepal such as politics, public security, health, education, economy, etc. marks their pale luster.  The nation’s business enterprises and foreign institutions hire private companies for their security. They find the investment climate is vitiated by a shaky political milieu.  Nepali authorities travel abroad for health checkups, youths migrate abroad for quality education and job opportunities and workers and businesspersons rely more on the global labour and capital markets for their progress. Restoring this waning trust of Nepalis in their own institutions bit by bit is vital to spur their sociability of flare and rhythm.

Civic patriotism

The civic world in old times was embedded in locally active upswing of ethnic, caste, religious and occupational solidarity. The radius of trust gyrated in the in-group sphere which did not emit at citizenship level. With the spread of scientific progress, democracy, citizenship rights and growing complexity of society, the stretch of political bonds shifted more towards self-chosen associational trust. Now politics is not only defined by conflict of interests, identities and ideologies but also by an area of cooperation, peaceful competition and trust. Teamwork and coalition culture have emerged in Nepal as an imperative caused by fragmentation of political spheres, introduction of proportional election and inability of any political party to gain requisite majority in the parliament. As a result, political leaders from one party marshal resources and support from the other to form the government. The edifice of civic patriotism of people is extending into membership in a myriad of functional formal and informal institutions.  Social movements are transcending conventional political boundaries defined by class-based binary code of ideology, organisation and worldview. Maoist-Center, even if it is ranked third force, has formed a coalition government on the basis of bridging trust lent by others though some of its supporters have despicable casts. 

The mainstream Nepali parties have catch-all brands. A number of them are class-based. A few others are movement and issue oriented. The non-class based forces are fighting for ecological, peace, gender and workers’ rights and justice. A steep rise of civic federations of indigenous people, cultural groups, local authorities, human rights bodies, NGOs, charity-based institutions etc. serve as change agents of society. Powerful networks of civic institutions combine a sense of social capital with inclusion, representation, political effectiveness and improved faith in their bridging potential. Some political parties, however, face trust slumps for their declining passion to control the cycle of exclusion, corruption, cronyism and impunity. Their tepid response to the concern of the general public is the main reason.  New awareness brought about by information has sponsored distrust of many institutions including part of the media circle for their failure to suit the public.  Electoral swing of de-alignment in party politics too hints at a deep crisis of trust.  Some parties embodying fellow-feeling in leadership and civic enterprise seek to erode the preexisting inequalities of gender, caste and class relations to raise trust in civic virtues. Others built on vertical style face harsh challenges from their electorates. They question the exercise of discretionary power of their leaders in candidate selection for fear of the party's festering clout and turning aspiring leaders distrustful and restless.

The rights-based Nepali constitution holds little meaning if top-down process of politics flags the choice and voice of the people. It only prompts Nepalis to demand from the state institutions to fulfill all rights beyond their capacity and thus eroding trust in them. The institutional erosion in the nation is marked by the distribution of vital posts in all constitutional organs and public institutions among the mainstream parties and their skewed performance in supplying public goods and services. The public criticize them for not following their broader mandates and roles, becoming insensate to democratic pluralism, values of inclusion and civic culture of impersonality. To stop this erosion, institutional and policy reforms are vital so that Nepalis perceive that the public institutions work for them. The world of business in Nepal is family run and specific to certain castes. Despite big corporate leverage, it is seen covetous in hoarding profits during crisis time.  Corporate ethics, no tax evasion and out-group reliance can improve trust and ties with the polity and the people.

A society nurturing inter-institutional trust is deemed most effective because it coordinates the actions of all actors in the resolution of problems and gets success in attaining common good.  Nepal’s educational institutions, for example, are created to foster centers of learning about theoretical and applied research and teaching, doing jobs and engaging in entrepreneurship.  Their specialised roles are expected to supply working qualifications and good knowledge, with curriculum and contents constantly tailored to the needs of Nepali ecology, economy, society and polity. They are supposed to be the places for higher learning throughout life, opening their doors to varied opportunities who desire either to continue their studies, cultivate their knowledge to satisfy their yearning for learning and research in many areas of national life.  This has enabled them to become leading partners in international cooperation, facilitate exchanges of researchers, teachers and students, ensure that quality education is made widely available for all and they develop a culture of trust and civility so that the public do not go against each other.

Institutions of public administration work best when they have competent leadership with vision, will, integrity, autonomy, courage and resources to make a difference in the life of Nepalis. The absence of these attributes makes them vulnerable to bureaucratic charade which follows the orders from above without thinking and reflecting. If authorities are raised and reared on a patronage basis they cannot perform institutional tasks in a meritocratic way. Certain elements of folk Nepali societies are still fatalistic, less exposed to civic virtues. They are caught in primordial attachments nurturing cave-men feeling of dread of outside and fear of change. The interactive model of some locally rooted cross-class voluntary associations has helped to generate scientific consciousness to rub off the existing fatalistic attitude.  Local community, the government and the international community each have a responsibility to initiate educational reform and training of people in quality education and action so that they are de-rationalised. Only then Nepalis can develop a habit of obedience to constitutional values and norms, put trust on the strength of institutions and put value on them. The nation urgently requires a public policy debate for renewing its civic life, so that new socialisation patterns can build public trust in the institutions of governance and foster social exchanges, cross-fertilisation of ideas and sharing of cultures so that diverse Nepalis would get along.

Socialisation infuses the art of learning about democracy, the value of public and private institutions and self-discovery. In diverse societies like Nepal absence of trust stokes a politics of difference across the faultlines of the nation so far glued by its syncretic culture, a culture that helped people to enlarge the sphere of identity from an individual person to a public citizen and enabled them to understand the power dynamics of families, peer groups, schools, political parties and the state to the global governance. Such a view holds that individuals born in a family are not isolated atoms. They are connected to the change of time and context and learn to build trust in their ties with several networks, institutions, associations, federations, NGOs and civil societies for their benefit. Socialisation conceives a condition in which communication and participation are free of domination. This fuses individual identities in democratic public life. Public institutions are intended to serve the public and national interests. The more they satisfy these interests, the better they acquire trustworthiness and creditworthiness and greater the stability of democratic regime. Independent media play a big role in creating trust in leaders, parties, polity, civil society and business institutions but political correctness of some of them has gone wild, others receive kickbacks for projecting their desired images which undermines their profession and consequently their narration faces public trust deficits.

Institutional culture

Institutional context defines self-identities of Nepalis and is sustained by its cultural values which supply them with ways of feeling, speaking, knowing and acting. People often look for examples from their superiors and public figures. If authorities in different spheres of life govern in the spirit of the Constitution, they become not only a “role model” but can also lift the nation to a new era of order, justice and peace. The animating vision of promoting institutional culture and memory is expected to give each Nepali the means to take full advantage of civic aptitude, competence, brilliance and accomplishment to participate in the Nepali society, economy and politics. The idea of lifelong institutional learning reconciles other components: legitimate struggle, which provides motives and incentives to excel others; collaboration, which adds synergy for sharing culture and re-sparking the economy; and institutional trust, which unites people to engage in collective action. Trust can be shored up if Nepali authorities rise above themselves, evolve civic culture and give primacy to public interests, not just the partisan interests. Confidence in public institutions too can be strengthened if they operate under constitutional rules of the game.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)

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