Trusted, sustainable partnership or cynical manipulation?

“Who do you trust? The Government, Marmite, Michael Fish .. Tesco .. ? So begins Matthew Gwyther, in a Management Today editorial on corporate trust. Debate over on-line trust is even more surreal.

Matthew does not expect to have an “intimate relationship” with his on-line grocer, he just hopes they will try to honestly do their job and not make too many mistakes. Surveys from the United States indicate that over 80% of Internet users trust credit reference agencies and nearly as many trust their bank. But less than half trust local government, fewer trust central government and barely a quarter trust on-line service providers or retailers. So why do the latter spend so much time trying to collect personal information and get us to use supposedly secure passwords while, at the same time, trying to avoid legal responsibility for keeping them safe.

The “business models” of most ICT suppliers, as well as of on-line service delivery providers (both public and private) currently depend on finding credible and “trusted” solutions to a set of inter-twined identity management and information assurance conundrums, but few of those players appear willing to “trust” their technology and service “partners”.

The exception is financial services, where “my word is my bond” is commonly backed up by contracts that tie corporate legal responsibility to the electronic credentials issued to named individuals. That approach is also central to the Chinese plans to leap-frog second life into a world where your “trusted” avatar goes shopping in an electronic YuWi (the 450,000 product line hyper-market cum manufacturing complex that currently houses over 5,000 overseas purchasing agents and sets world commodity prices for small manufactured products). The Beijing Cyber Re-creation District was launched on November 9th in the Great Hall of the People, where last month the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party agreed, among other things, that there was no turning back and that the future of China lay with taking global free trade seriously.

Madam Fu Ying, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, explained some of the consequences in a superb presentation at the Royal Society of Arts last Friday. She also covered the areas where China most sought to learn from others (e.g. financial services, pollution control, brand management etc.) and the value of using the 90,000 chinese students currently in the UK to help build mutual understanding, including for us to learn what China is like today, not what it was ten years ago. Unsurprisingly, the event was attended by many senior anglo-chinese businessmen and the subsequent discussion on British and Chinese attitudes towards “trust” at every level, personal and corporate as well as inter-governmental, helped hone my thinking on some of our domestic debates.

On Thursday afternoon EURIM has the second of its Transformational Government Dialogues, on the issues of moving from rhetoric to reality in organising delivery partnerships across the boundaries of trust, motivation and culture between public private and voluntary sectors. A recent Kable report conclused that “To deliver increasingly complex care through an ever more diverse mix of providers is beyond the capabilities of the current system.” On Thursday I hope to hear them proved wrong by witnesses from The National Federation of Subpostmasters, the National Council of Voluntary Sector Organisations and The Social Enterprise Coalition.

But there are some awkward questions to be answered first:

– Are embedded cultural barriers preventing collaboration?

– Is an obsession with short term cost cutting, rather than delivering valuable outcomes over the longer term, proving counter productive?

– Is the drive for economies of scale creating more barriers to harnessing the innovation and personalisation that smaller, local organizations can provide?

– Can the public sector measure value? What more can intermediaries do to prove their value for money?

– What is best practice and why is it not adopted more widely?

The global credit crunch means that the same questions are about to be asked with regard to many private sector business models and if 300,000 anglo-chinese are about to become trusted inter-mediaries, providing local human validation for the trusted avatars on the global YiWu that is the vision of the Beijing Cyber Re-Creation Development Corporation, the answers may entail rather more attention to what customers want and will pay for – and rather less slavish following of technology fashion.