Not long ago, Radio 4 ran a short discussion on trust in British institutions. One of the observations was that, in the age of Twitter, defending reputations often means sharing criticism of them.
Just about every institution in Britain has suffered over the past few years. Scandals have battered once revered reputations from the BBC, to Parliament, banks, newspapers, hospitals, the police and government itself. The Army may just have escaped for now, but for how long? Only the a Monarchy seems to have survived unscathed, but even then after some torrid years in the 1990s.
Reputation matters. In the case of the police, the service’s reputation is a national asset. It’s what allows police officers and staff to do their jobs, because it’s a brand we can trust. That is particularly true in Dyfed Powys. If the success of policing is the absence of crime, Dyfed Powys are among the best.
As 2013 gets underway we have a lot to do. We need to build relationships between police and crime commissioners and the police they govern. Commissioners are the public’s voice to the police, so they are a key part of public trust in the police. We must make sure that they help add to the service’s reputation and, where necessary, repair it.
Enhancing a strong reputation is what I want to achieve here, in mid-Wales. To do that we need a discussion about what trust means and how reputation grows, which is where Radio 4 comes in.
The gist of the discussion was that, in the past people sought to protect reputations by defending them. People in institutions – the police, large companies, government – protected the public from difficult decisions on the basis that the public did not have the information to make decisions themselves. So, we all trusted institutions to make decisions for us.
In the Internet age, the public can access as much information as any institution and often more quickly. They don’t have to check it. They can react on rumour. Reputations matter more that ever in times like this, so that we know who to trust. But today, the trick for protecting a reputation is not traditional defence but guerrilla tactics. Organisations mustn’t build a fortresses to protect themselves. They must swim among the people, so to speak.
If we follow this reasoning, we need to do more than just share information. Reputation depends on the ability to be self-critical, light-hearted and human. It means sharing thinking, not just decisions.
That’s what we should try to capture as police governance evolves. We need a system that makes decision-making, not just decisions, accountable. We should start by trusting people. They are far more likely to be forgiving when we are honest about difficult judgements than when we hide them.
Defending a reputation in the age of the internet means letting someone sling a bit of mud and discovering it doesn’t hurt. I remember watching the Army insist on defending an increasing mess in Iraq against a sceptical media. Commanders convinced themselves that everything was fine. We believed our experience in Northern Ireland made us the best counter-insurgency force in the world. It took a very long time for reality to dawn.
Trust in our police is the very foundation of our society. We are, generally, starting from a good place. Officers rank high in public estimation – certainly higher than politicians. But trust is a funny thing. It can seep away without anyone noticing. Once you do notice, it’s too late.
We must keep ahead of public opinion to maintain trust. Over the next few months Commissioners and police chiefs across the country will have much to discuss. Building a relationship that shares thinking as well as decisions with the public will be the key to our reputation in the modern world.