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Trust needs to be invested in

Mistrust is contagious and low trust costs you money

The former chief executive of the ILM once said that “trust is more than a nice-to-have, it is the lifeblood of sustainable organisational performance.” I couldn’t agree more.

At this time of uncertainty, austerity and challenge, public bodies really need high levels of trust inside their organisations if they’re to deliver effectively to people outside.

But it’s not easy. As well as the considerable challenge of change, public sector staff are also facing added worries and uncertainties – such as organisational mergers, job security, possible salary cuts, and delivering day to day tasks differently. Taking staff with you through difficult times like these is essential. Mistrust is contagious and low trust costs you money. Issues around trust have kept me awake at night during certain periods in my career.

When I took charge six years ago the Wales Audit Office had been on a difficult journey. It was the product of a series of mergers. The final one in 2005 brought together the Audit Commission and National Audit Office in Wales – very different organisations, very different management styles, and very different cultures.

Added to this was the sudden resignation of my predecessor in 2010. His arrest and subsequent criminal conviction sent shockwaves through the organisation. External reputation had dipped and internal morale was very low.

I prioritised restoring our reputation with stakeholders, improving internal communications, and enhancing relations with trade unions. New legislation in 2013 established a Wales Audit Office Board to help strengthen governance arrangements, scrutiny and challenge. We now have a more focused business plan, with clear objectives and performance targets.

But enhancing the operational aspects of a business alone isn’t a recipe for building staff trust. When we took a more regular check of staff views – through pulse surveys – we found there was a disconnect between the scores and how some people were actually feeling. Much had improved but trust was still low. We appeared to be falling short in the softer areas: behaviours, values and leadership styles.

This is when we decided to get in touch with the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. It conducts trust audits and has been working with a number of public bodies. We invited it to carry out a combination of surveys and focus groups.

The results underlined that we have a strong external reputation for which staff feel considerable pride. Colleagues think the Wales Audit Office is a good place to work – both in itself and in comparison to other organisations. But they also highlighted where work still needs to be done and we’re focusing now on behaviours, values and integrated working.

We know we’re on a journey. We’ve prioritised engaging with staff to develop a set of behaviours that everyone can hold each other to account for. We’re also committed to simplifying decision-making processes so that employees feel empowered to get things done. We recognise the need to strengthen the skills of our line managers and senior leadership.

Trust needs to be nurtured and invested in. Earning it is an ongoing process at the Wales Audit Office, as I’m sure it is across the public and private sectors.

Huw Vaughan Thomas is auditor general for Wales