News over the past couple of weeks has served to make “public trust” more of an oxymoron than ever.

I wonder how our governments expect to maintain the notion of public trust when almost daily there are reports of secret surveillance, monitoring of private communications and misuse of public funds?

And yes, I’m talking about governments that celebrate and trumpet their successful democracies and commitment to freedom, freethinking and free opinion — countries like the U.S. and Canada.

Both countries got nailed last week with embarrassing revelations that they have been monitoring Internet and phone communications of their citizens and internationals communicating with their citizens. The reason: national security.

Ever since 9/11, national security has become the catchall reason for governments to compromise privacy in the name of safety for all. And the funny thing is, the majority of US and Canadian citizens agree that national safety is paramount. So then why do our governments insist on keeping these programs secret? Nothing serves to undermine trust like secrets.

The news of our communications being monitored came as no surprise to me. We all know that there are extremists and terrorists in our society. Is it really surprising that government security monitors communication activities in an attempt to stay ahead of the “bad guys”? I think most of would say, with a resigned pragmatism, no, it’s not surprising. So then why hide it?

Imagine the relationship that government could have with it’s citizens if:

  • government respected the public’s right to know about surveillance programs and what happens to the captured information
  • government acted swiftly to respond to concerns that impact public trust
  • government addressed breaches of trust by elected officials or government bureaucrats with appropriate discipline such as firings, criminal charges or other actions that would be brought upon a “regular citizen” in similar circumstances

When government feels that it no longer needs to honour the social contract that we call “public trust”, it triggers increased cynicism, conflict and protest. Public trust is essential to building healthy societies where citizens are invited to work with their governments to create an inclusive, positive, innovative future for everyone.

The value of public trust has been a cornerstone of democracy but it’s rapidly eroding. It’s time for our governments to repair the foundation and build a stronger future in the process. A commitment to transparent and collaborative public engagement would be a great start.

With healthy respect for public trust, we can forge ahead together successfully, fostering a society that is transparent and inclusive — one where people feel engaged and valued. Imagine what kind of communities we could create if we trusted one another.

Maureen Douglas, CPF-IAF, is usually in this weekly space. Mo writes, consults and speaks about the power of positive public, workplace and team engagement. Click here for Mo’s FREE e-Guide to Better Public Engagement. Follow her on Twitter.