We probably should trust experts. When I go to the dentist, I trust them because they have qualifications and are knowledgeable, they appear confidential and professional, the waiting room is full of people who are relatively calm and relaxed considering they are at the dentists. They talk to me like I’m a human being, rather than expect me to be an expert in teeth. Having said that, I’m not convinced by toothpaste adverts that suggest I should use a particular brand just because lots of dentists do!
The water industry is jam packed full of different experts, whether that’s water quality samplers and scientists, engineers who can imagine how to get great water from a to b, those that make this website work and all the people who make sure that water is treated safely and continues to travel to the tap. All of them have the same common features I want to see in a dentist, they are knowledgeable, care about what they are doing, and deserve to be trusted. And they don’t try and sell me toothpaste! Or even water.
So, as an economist who works in the water industry, I try and apply the same standards. Economists have a lot of expertise and knowledge, given that economic concepts pervade most of our lives, when we work, choose what to buy and pay for things etc. But unlike dentists or most professions, there isn’t really one theory or set of rules that help to earn trust, even between economists.
But economics does matter, especially to something as important to life as water. Economics shapes how we value water resources, how the environment is protected and how we pay for it, as well as many other decisions which we make when planning the future supply of water. Economics can be complicated (and some might say not the most exciting topic...not me of course), and we wouldn’t expect customers and non-economist stakeholders to engage in all of the detail. This means that to be comfortable that they are getting a reliable water supply at a fair price, they need to trust the expert economists.
Trust needs to be earnt. We can’t expect anyone not directly involved to trust a process run by economists or policy experts. Like the dentist waiting room, trust is something best built up through personal experience, as well as having confidence that clean fresh water will be there when we turn on the tap.
At the heart of trust is engagement. There has been lots of great engagement with customers and stakeholders by the water industry, including education and careers sites such as the Bristol Water Foundation. Its even possible to engage on the topic of economics itself! We had great fun in working with the economists at Ofwat to develop this educational resource on the topic of economics of water, which you can also download from the Bristol Water Foundation.
I think there is much more economists can do to build local trust in how water and other public service decisions are made. We’ve captured some of our ideas on how to do this in a “think piece” we’ve called “Regulating for trust and consensus” and have shared this with Ofwat and others interested in the water sector. We would love to hear your views.