Competence and integrity: Foundations of trustworthy regulation

A final consideration lies at the intersection of objective and subjective fairness. A desire to make sure that the people who administer laws and regulations do so with integrity and competence drives a great deal of legal and regulatory process. Of course, citizens are not blind to the possibility of corruption or incompetence, and they factor any evidence of either of these into their perceptions of the fairness of their experiences. (See Tyler, Goff and MacCoun, 2015 for a discussion of how these factors matter in police- citizen interactions.) Evidence of corruption is, of course, a strong barrier to any feeling of fair treatment. In a cross-national study of reactions to the self-serving behaviour of managers in business settings, Janson et al. (2008) found that the belief that a manager was concerned with serving his or her own interests negated any beneficial effect of subsequent fairness-oriented actions on the part of that manager. Janson et al. (2008) refer to the perception of self-serving versus self-sacrificing behaviour as a psychological “heuristic” or shortcut to trusting or distrusting that person.

If early on in an encounter an official or authority seems to be interested in his or her personal gain, people quickly come to distrust that person and it is difficult to change that initial reaction. If on the other hand the official appears at the outset to be willing to make sacrifices for the general good, people’s trust in his or her motivations is almost automatic. In either event, early selfish or selfless behaviour can often overwhelm later fair or unfair actions. Interestingly, fairness judgements can block concern about selfinterest if fair treatment is encountered first.

The practical lesson from this line of research is that fairness, integrity, and competence should all be part of the citizen’s impression from the very beginning. One need only imagine an encounter with an official who demonstrates both integrity and competence while at the same offering the citizen voice and consideration, respect, and explanations to see how these two factors can and should be combined with fairness elements to provide a positive experience with government. Similarly, one need only imagine an encounter with an official who seems corrupt, incompetent, or unfair to see how all three factors are needed.

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