is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy
is president and CEO of the Center for Business Ethics and Corporate Governance
The conviction last week of longtime Congressman Chaka Fattah on 22 charges of racketeering, money laundering, and fraud has sent shock waves through the Philadelphia community. "[He] betrayed the public trust and undermined our faith in government," said U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger. And he is only one of an embarrassing list of state and local officials who have recently pleaded guilty or been convicted of public corruption.
This is, of course, far from the only evidence that public trust in government has plummeted. The current presidential campaign provides stunning evidence that substantial segments of the public are in revolt against the "establishment" on both sides of the political spectrum. According to the Pew Research Center, "Fewer than three-in-10 Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007 - the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years." Closer to home, a 2013 Gallup poll reports that Pennsylvania ranks fourth lowest in the nation in trust of state government.
In a democracy, declining respect for elected leaders is an alarming trend. Are we electing the wrong people? Or do they become the wrong people? Or both?
Accountability is a popular word these days. Relative to public officials, it's often used to mean that they should be sanctioned when they let us down. In other words, the focus is on compliance: Punish lawmakers when they break the law, and then write even more new rules that will trip them up if they do. We'd like to suggest another approach.
The management guru Peter Drucker once noted that "culture eats strategy for breakfast." Can't we design accountability to provide incentives for an ethical culture - rather than relying on penalties for an unethical culture?
We believe we can. The Center for Business Ethics and Corporate Governance has been working with organizations around the world to promote the idea that "a basic duty of every organization is to earn stakeholder trust." This approach hinges on two basic elements.
First a goal: Trustworthy behavior is a proxy for ethical behavior.
Second, a metric to provide accountability, with stakeholders' opinions providing the yardstick.
In the business world, the value of ethical, trustworthy behavior is clear. Research in developed economies suggests clearly that companies with strong employee and customer ratings outperform their peers economically. Similar work in emerging economies demonstrates that the single most important factor in economic development is "generalized trust," that is, readiness to trust institutions and people outside one's friends and family circle.
Both in the business world and in the public sphere, any attempt to build trust must be accompanied by a good metric - a key performance indicator, in management speak. This is obvious to most business managers ("you manage what you measure"), but, in government, the only metric that really counts has been the popular vote, a topline once-every-few-years score that is influenced by many factors.
If we're looking to rebuild trust in government, it only makes sense to develop better and more regular metrics that give citizens a voice in communicating which behaviors build trust and which destroy it.
So, how can we apply lessons from the business world to rebuild citizens' trust in our government? How about if we start by keeping score on what public officials do to earn our trust, as well as when they betray that trust? How about a public scorecard that every citizen is invited to participate in, that assesses the trustworthiness of each public official? We are constantly asked to rate products and services via online surveys; why not our elected representatives and public servants?
We propose a publicly reported Citizen Performance Review - and the acronym CPR may be appropriate for a process that has the potential to revive our political culture. This CPR could help us define what we expect of our government as well as strengthen the ties between public behavior and public trust.
Philadelphia's historical role as the laboratory of the American experiment is worth remembering and resurrecting. A model for a new approach to ethical governance could be a good start.