Many have argued that it is crucial to build social trust in order to create a sustainable environment in public service, one where the public holds the government accountable for service delivery and officials carry out their duties with integrity. Social trust refers to a generalised trust in people within society and institutions. ‘Integrity trendsetters’ can play an important role in changing norms that favour corruption and building social trust.
This U4 Issue investigates how direct interactions between youths and public officials can initiate the building of broader trust in public administration. As a case study, we analyse a youth fellowship that is part of Integrity Idol, an accountability and integrity programme of Accountability Lab Nepal. The Integrity Idol campaign highlights individual public officials who have demonstrated integrity and who spearhead anti-corruption activities in their own government departments. Youths selected as fellows spend a month shadowing these integrity trendsetters, or ‘idols,’ in their place of work. Through firsthand interactions with the trendsetters, the youths learn that not all government officials are corrupt. They see that there are officials who work with integrity and deliver good services to the public. The young people discard social norms that favour corruption, build trust in public servants, and enhance their own interest in pursuing a government service career.
- In Nepal, the Integrity Idol campaign and its youth fellowship component has been successful in changing youth opinions about corruption and establishing positive conditions for building social trust. Such programmes can enhance development partners’ and practitioners’ efforts to build greater accountability and trust in the public sector.
- Trendsetters are individuals who abandon established norms, spearhead change, inspire others, and mobilise others to follow in their footsteps. They are an important element in changing norms that favour corruption.
- ‘Pluralistic ignorance’ describes a situation in which people follow a norm because they falsely believe that everyone else agrees with it. For example, individuals may reject corruption personally yet still assume, incorrectly, that most others in the society participate in it.
- In Nepal, youths who interact directly with integrity trendsetters abandon such beliefs. They come to trust that not all government officials are corrupt, and that there are public servants who work with integrity and deliver good services.
- Youths who interact with trendsetters often become more interested in working in public administration themselves. They believe that they can maintain personal integrity throughout their working life, regardless of career choice.
- Practitioners need to recognise that individual trendsetters function within wider social and professional networks. Including these networks in programmes can help trendsetters be more effective in building integrity. Programmes where youth co-learn and interact with trendsetters can strengthen networks that promote integrity in trendsetters’ places of work.
- Mentoring, fellowship, and integrity award programmes that include bureaucrats in training or newly graduated civil servants can help to build the next generation of trendsetters.
- Formalised peer exchange on positive experiences with public servants can help reduce pluralistic ignorance and increase trust.
- Historically rooted inequalities in caste, gender, and social status should be considered when identifying integrity trendsetters and selecting youth participants.
Recommendations for donors and governments
Development partners should consider supporting holistic integrity trendsetter initiatives that include youth engagement. Adding a youth dimension to trendsetter programmes changes opinions regarding the ineffectiveness of government and builds trust in service providers.
Donors and governments wishing to introduce integrity-based awards and youth fellowships should do so across sectors and levels, in a variety of programmatic areas.
Governments should consider establishing fellowship programmes for youth, including those preparing for government entrance exams.
Recommendations for civil society organisations and youth
Civil society organisations should consider developing programmes that facilitate dialogue and interaction between youth and integrity trendsetters within government. These programmes should be developed with long-term dialogue in mind.
Youth and youth organisations should develop ties with integrity trendsetters within government to challenge descriptive norms of corruption and build paths for developing social trust.
In order to build trust sustainably through integrity trendsetter programmes, it is crucial to integrate the trendsetters’ social networks into programme design and planning. In this example, many fellows engaged with the informal social networks of idols by living with them and participating in their social lives. Additionally, including the professional network of idols’ colleagues can strengthen generalised trust in government service.
Expanding the programme to work with youth preparing for government entrance exams can help create a new generation of trendsetters. For example, trainees can be offered internships within departments where there are existing trendsetters, or given trainee integrity awards.
Expanding the programme to include institutionalised peer exchange sessions can help bring about a wider norm change among youth.
Any programme needs to take into consideration social, gender, and ethnic inequalities when designing interventions that foster intergenerational exchange between youth and trendsetters.
Replication of the Integrity Idol and fellowship programme, with the additional recommendations above, can enhance the activities of development partners and practitioners towards building greater accountability and social trust in the public sector.