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New ANZSOG Research Model project: does co-governance improve levels of trust in the public service?

7 December 2022

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Public trust in large, traditional institutions and systems, including public institutions, is in decline in many countries and a new ANZSOG-funded research project will look at the potential of co-governance to lift trust.  

The two-year research project is co-sponsored by the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet,  as well as Customer Service, Regional and the NSW Public Service Commission, who are seeking to understand and develop a new way of working collaboratively with communities and to what extent this can build trust. 

It will be undertaken by the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) and led by Professor Bingqin Li, with the long-term goal of building an evidence base that can be used to ‘scale up’ successful co-governance projects that can build trust. 

Declining levels of trust across the world can lead to a lack of social cohesion and risk aversion among policymakers, causing challenges in the design and implementation of policies and services.  

Australia is not immune to this trend, with the 2019 Thodey Review noting that “public trust in the benefits of globalisation, openness and traditional institutions, including the APS, is at concerning, low levels.” 

Lower levels of trust are coupled with a changing public service context, with the public increasingly expecting more complex, tailored services that meet needs at the individual and community level. Public services are responding to this pressure with new approaches to policy and service delivery that prioritise citizen engagement, collaboration, and accountability. 

One such approach is co-governance, which occurs when an institution of government negotiates shared decision-making with stakeholders, generally community-based organisations. This decision-making power is formal and includes the right to decide what is recommended to elected government officials and involvement in program implementation, evaluation, and refinement. 

Co-governance has been successfully used in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand to negotiate arrangements for environmental management, justice, and health services with First Nations, as well as various placed-based approaches to service delivery and the management of public spaces 

Co-governance has the potential to improve community engagement and change perceptions of the public service and its relationship with the public, however it is a resource intensive process and it is important to establish a robust evidence base that demonstrates it can produce desired outcomes for both government and the public before these arrangements are adopted at scale. 

It is unclear how much co-governance increases the quality of community engagement and builds trust in the public service compared to similar collaborative arrangements. 

There are also gaps in knowledge of what are the practical enablers of good co-governance that builds trust. These include issues such as which stakeholders and government officials should be involved, how decisions are made and communicated, and what resources are needed.  

To build this evidence base, the SPRC research team will seek to understand how co-governance works and the enablers of effective arrangements, identify ways of measuring public trust, and whether co-governance has any measurable flow on impact on trust and the effectiveness of an initiative. 

The project has three primary phases and will take place over two years. An initial review of the literature to gather evidence on the operationalisation and outcomes of co-governance will inform the development of a measurement for public trust. The project will then use a case study approach, with participant workshops and in-depth interviews providing an opportunity to test the measurement for public trust. Comparing case studies will provide insights into different contexts and the structural features of co-governance arrangements, and if they impact trust and effectiveness.  

The final output will be a brief, highly accessible summary report and detailed technical report, with findings that can be readily translated into a set of principles or a good practice guide for approaching co-governance arrangements. This report will be available free through ANZSOG’s Research Insights series. 

This project is part of the second round of ANZSOG’s Research Model, the success of which is based on our unique ability to connect academics and practitioners in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. ANZSOG’s Research Model adopts a practice-driven and collaborative approach to research, delivering projects that respond to major issues of interest in public administration, policy development and management. Reports from the 2021 Research Model projects on Flexible working in the Australian Capital Territory Public Service and How do place-based services evolve in a world of virtual, physical and hybrid service delivery? are available through ANZSOG’s Research Insights series.