Trust is a fragile commodity, easily lost and difficult to regain. As an asset in the public arena, honesty appears to be in shorter and shorter supply. Even as considerable rhetoric continues to be devoted to restoring “trust” in government, recent studies clearly indicate we remain a society awash in dishonesty and mistrust.
One of the more revealing annual surveys of this phenomenon is conducted each year by the non-partisan Ponemon Institute . The institute’s annual “Privacy Trust Study of the United States Government” probes the views of citizens across the country to gauge their level of trust regarding various federal government agencies.
For the past four years, the U.S. Postal Service has received the highest score . Although that may surprise some people, what should universally shock Americans is the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice is among the least trusted of federal agencies. That’s right — the one government office tasked above all others with maintaining the standards of justice, fairness and privacy , is among the least trusted. Nearly four times more Americans found the Postal Service worthy of their trust than they did Justice.
Confidence in the Justice Department’s ability to operate according to high standards of fairness is essential to upholding the rule of law in America. Lack of trust in government erodes the ability of the Justice Department to successfully prosecute important cases, including those involving corruption in government. If the citizenry lacks trust in law enforcement, especially at the federal level, they will be more hesitant to bring information to the government’s attention . If the average citizen perceives top government officials as thumbing their noses at the law, those citizens may feel emboldened to themselves violate the laws.
Recognition of standards for honesty and trust in government at the top likely led Attorney General Eric Holder to affirm the administration will in fact abide by the laws prohibiting torture. This move was buttressed by his recent release of disturbing memos by Bush administration officials that attempted to justify the use of torture by its operatives in the CIA (which, in the most recent Ponemon trust survey, ranked even below that of the Justice Department).
The administration of President Obama, however, appears still unsure of how far to go in demanding that agencies other than the Justice Department take steps to convey openness and honesty in their dealings. The administration still refuses to order the Treasury Department and other federal offices responsible for the “bailout billions” to disclose how they are spending the taxpayer monies entrusted to them. And prosecutions of the massive frauds that aided the mortgage meltdown still are far too few.
Another study conducted by the Josephson Institute for Ethics presents a chilling picture of just how difficult is the task of restoring a sense of trust. In its 2008 survey, Josephson found that nearly two-thirds of high school students cheat in school; nearly one-third of those same students admitted stealing from stores. (Both figures were increases over the institute’s 2006 survey.)
Finally, yet another survey conducted by KPMG found that businesses suffer equally distressing levels of dishonesty. KPMG’s 2008-2009 “Integrity Survey” of corporations, revealed that three-fourths of corporate employees observed misconduct in their organizations, with half of those indicating such transgressions were of such severity as to cause a loss of public trust if discovered. Dishonesty truly is an equal opportunity endeavor.
Nearly 2,500 years ago, Diogenes roamed Greece looking for an honest man, reportedly with little success. He’d likely have an even harder time now.