A matter of trust - an essential part of a good society

I enjoyed the Otago Daily Times weekend article about Prof Mark Henaghan (8.12.18).

One section of the interview has had me ruminating since:

''The more law you have, the less you have to trust people. The less you trust people, the more distrustful they become and so the more law you need in order to trust them. A good society would not have too much law, because people would do the right thing. But in New Zealand, we have a lot of law.''

There are a few layers in this statement, but it has made me wonder about where trust lies in society and who we make our laws and rules for. What tends to happen, is that we make rules for the few who do bad things or make mistakes.

Take the DCC vehicle fraud as an example, a few bad apples have meant increased compliance and regulations for the vast majority of DCC staff who would never dream of fraudulent schemes, let alone act on them. This in turn means we, as ratepayers, have to stump up more in rates to pay for the people and procedures that have to be put in place to ensure this type of act doesn't happen again.

You can't blame the council for bringing in the procedures, they suffered the ignominy of being front page news for what felt like months and yet - we all end up losing.

Laws and rules are not necessarily introduced in response to illegal activities either. In my world, the world of science, I am seeing over-management and over-governance on a grand scale, to the point where on many scientific programmes, there are as many business managers and ''steering group members'' as there are scientists.

I assume this is because in the past a proportion of science programmes were wasteful or did not do what they said that they were going to, so now all science programmes have to be run by people who understand process, not necessarily science. The end result is that the portion of science spend actually spent on doing science, is ever-diminishing and trust feels non-existent. I used to work with a delightfully cynical statistician who christened one of these managers the Process Princess - sometimes humour is the best antidote!

Back to this word trust - when should it be given and when should it be taken away? Well that is one of those circular, or philosophical, arguments I find interesting but have limited patience for, because there is no simple answer.

Probably, the answer lies in openness and forgiveness, followed by common sense. I am by nature trusting and it has mostly stood me in good stead. I see the good in people unless proven otherwise, and even when proven otherwise, I will try and understand why someone is behaving poorly to see how I might give them the benefit of doubt and sometimes a second-third-fourth chance.

If I had something happen in a company I was leading akin to the DCC vehicle fraud, then I would need to remind myself that this was a small group of people, who needed to be dealt with, and far from representative of the entire organisation.

I would hope that this would not mean a knee-jerk reaction of creating excessive process stifling everyone. I am not saying this did happen in the case of the DCC, it's just an example, but on the flip side of that argument is the question: what is the breaking point at which rules and laws become essential for the protection of everyone?

Prof Mark Henaghan's statement that ''in New Zealand, we have a lot of law,'' extends to a lot of rules and compliance too - not all bad, but difficult to undo once in place.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. What do we do if we have gone too far? As a society, can we learn to trust again? Will scientists be allowed to do actual science, will teachers be allowed to teach and will farmers be allowed to farm?

In completing my final column for 2018 and wishing all my readers a wonderful festive season, I will borrow words from someone more articulate than myself, Scottish poet, George MacDonald:

''To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.''

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin-based agri-technology company.

 

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