Gaining and maintaining the trust of citizens

Dr Canute Thompson

Sunday, April 02, 2017

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It is a truism to say that "no one is perfect" and no truthful person would ever claim that he or she has never lied. But the defence that no one is perfect is a fallback that some people use to try to defend the indefensible.

The business of politics is one that is fraught with the risk of relying on falsehoods as a way of promoting one’s brand. And in a context of economic desperation faced by many it is easy to get people to believe falsehoods that promise to improve their condition. But it is hard for me to accept that the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) really knew that it was impossible to give the massive $32-billion tax break without raising existing and introducing new taxes, yet said otherwise. I just do not think they could knowingly and deliberately mislead in that manner. I prefer to side with the view that the JLP did not do the arithmetic properly and came up with the wrong figure.


But the problem is not so much the flawed arithmetic. The problem is what the Government did when it discovered that its figures were wrong.


So if it is the case that the JLP made an error in its calculation of what it would take to give the tax relief, how then could it make sense for the Government to proceed, regardless of the implications of the keeping of that promise? Making the mistake with the figures was bad enough, but to proceed when it was discovered that the price tag was four times what was projected is quite another and the bigger mistake.




Cover-up often makes matters worse


So if the Government made an error concerning the financial cost of the $1.5-million tax break would it not be smarter to simply and graciously admit error and not proceed on the flawed path?


There are three reasons the option chosen by the Government is the worse option. Firstly, the majority of the population will not benefit from the tax break, given that they were either not working or were below the $592,000 threshold, but will pay for the break for others, so the intended political gain will not be realised. Secondly, those who will get the ‘break’ will see the cancellation of the gains in higher fuel prices, higher property taxes, higher electricity costs, etc, and so will be dismissive of the notion that they got a break. There is thus likely to be anger and animosity towards the Government. Thirdly, and perhaps the worst, the Government would have lost the trust of the people — except, perhaps, the diehards. To place all that energy and political capital in something that undermines the trust in the Government cannot be anything but a big loss.




The ingredients of trust


Trust is the most important quality in every relationship, whether between spouses, between workers and management, teacher and students, the judiciary and citizens, service seekers and service providers, supervisees and supervisors, politicians and the people. Trust may have many ingredients, but the two most important ones, in my view, are competence and credibility. Students’ trust in their teachers, for example, is strongly correlated to their confidence in their teachers’ competence. Similarly, the degree of trust that citizens have in the justice system is determined, in large part, by their confidence in the competence of judges. It is, therefore, my contention that the level of regard the people have for politicians, the degree of confidence they assign to them, the slack they are willing to cut them, and the amount of details they demand for decisions taken, are all dependent, to some extent, on how competent they perceive politicians to be.


Added to competence is credibility. Credibility is simply how much store we can lay in a person’s word. There can be competence without credibility, as seen in the difficulty we may have in trusting a competent mechanic that the car will be ready by day’s end. Sometimes the credibility of an otherwise competent person is undermined by poor time management, personal indiscipline, and taking on more than is manageable. So we can lose faith in competent people. But when competence is matched by credibility then relationships are so much more meaningful.


The hard question the Government must consider is whether its handling of the promised tax break, which was promised without increased or new taxes and which was to cost $8 billion, having now been implemented at a cost of $32 billion, raises legitimate questions about its competence and credibility.


The question that all of us will answer with our pockets is whether we would have preferred to be without the $1.5-million tax break and be spared the new taxes, or whether we are better off with the tax break and the new taxes.


I agree with those who argue that the economy is not at the point where it could afford to give such a large tax break. That is something that might have been doable in 2020 after four years of strong economic growth. The tax giveback in 2016 and 2017 reminds me of some so-called farmers in the 1970s who took Government’s money under the land lease project and, instead of farming, began to live big. Some bought expensive clothes and spent time at hotels and brothels, while others hired workers and sat under trees and watched them worked. Then there were those company executives, including some who owned banks, in the 1990s who were paying themselves salaries that were out of line with the profitability of the company.


If anyone were to doubt that Jamaica could not afford to give up $32 billion in taxes ask the taxi drivers, property owners, and heads of households. Even strong JLP supporters are decrying the brutality of the property tax increases. The Realtors Association reports that some businesses are seeing up to 980 per cent increase and are projecting that some retirees and others may have to sell their properties.




Categorical imperative


The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced into philosophical discourse the issue of the categorical imperative. According to Kant, the categorical imperative (CI) points to unconditional and principled conduct that a rational person must undertake regardless of the inconveniences or consequences related to that action. Kant further suggests that the categorical imperative is such that when it informs the conduct of a rational person that conduct can become a universal law, which is to say the conduct is good, helpful, and defensible in all circumstances. In practice the CI invites us to answer two questions:



1. Can I rationally will that everyone act as I propose to act?



2. Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes?


If the answer to either or both questions is ‘no’ then the act must not be performed. When applied to the Government’s handling of the increase in the tax threshold, the first question invites the Government to ask whether what it has done, and how it has done it, could become a model for how to engage the citizenry — whether with respect to introducing tax measures or any other matter.


In other words, in so far as what the Government told the country proved not to be true, either due to error, naivety or trickery, does the Government hold up this manner of engaging the citizenry as a model, and would it do so again and would it recommend its approach to future administrations? If the answer is ‘no’ (as any reasonable reader would agree) then the government owes the country an apology.


The second question really asks whether the tax break promise was just a ploy to get elected, in which case the party was using citizens as means to its own ends. There may yet be time for the Government to make amends for the broken trust.




Of the new PNP president...


The new PNP president has called on the youth to abandon cynicism and re-engage/engage in the political process. Former Member of Parliament and People’s National Party member Dean Peart has called on the new president to get rid of liars in the party. While people will always lie, Peart’s appeal is for a new culture and new standard of leadership to be displayed in our politics. Despite naysayers, many people accept that Peter Phillips did a solid job as minister of finance and performed well in his previous portfolios. By that measure it may be argued that he has met the test of competence. He is yet to prove himself, however, as leader of the party. So we wait.


I submit that with at least a credit balance of assumed competence to his social capital account, his greatest test will be in the area of credibility. The president had better demonstrate that his word is his bond; that what he says he will do, he in fact does; that what he says he will not do, he does not; and timelines he gives, he keeps. One hopes that that the president will eschew cheap one-upmanship and will not engage in cheap political point-scoring, and that those things he condemns today he will not embrace and defend at some expedient point in the future. Finally one hopes that the president will have the maturity and humility to apologise when he errs and never try to take us for fools.


Dr Canute Thompson is a management consultant and lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies. He is also cofounder of the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative and author of three books on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


 


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