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Professor Ken Smith: Overcoming distrust and rethinking government 

23 July 2018

News and media


Man and woman building a tower out of building blocks

This is an edited version of a speech given by ANZSOG Dean and CEO, Professor Ken Smith to the Queensland Department of Natural Resources Mines and Energy in May 2018.

There is growing evidence that people around the world are losing faith in representative democracy and our major institutions.

Amongst the young this malaise is even more marked. Such results, corroborated so many times in many different settings, should be deeply troubling to us all.

I am not sure what people think should replace democracy if it is condemned to the dustbin of paradigms, somehow no longer fit for purpose? A world of closed, authoritarian, strongman politics is no place most of us want to live.

But if we are to avoid this scenario we need to be honest about the challenges facing governments, and begin working towards solutions.

Declining trust is just one of a number of major trends that are setting distinct challenges for government. Rising expectations is another, as is the faster-moving more complex environment that public managers inhabit.

To survive in this environment, governments – both politicians and public servants – need to find better ways of connecting with citizens. 

We need to understand what skills public servants will need in this new environment. Process and implementation need to be effective and high-quality and finally, we need a strong intellectual case in favour of good government and the benefits it can deliver for society.

Trust in our democratic institutions

So what does The World Values Survey tells us about trust? The survey documents changes in values in beliefs over time, and allows for comparison between different “birth cohorts” or generations. (However their “world” spans the US and Europe, alas we Antipodeans don’t quite count.)

A commitment to liberal democracy is far stronger among baby boomers than the following generations. Those cohorts following the baby boomers possess a decreasing desire to live in a country that is governed democratically. Many commentators diagnose this as apathy, but the weight of learnt experience that creates such a consistent result should not be discounted. Younger generations have dwindling faith that representative democracy can deliver what they need and want.

In an article in the Journal of Democracy, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, from Melbourne and Harvard universities, call this phenomenon the ‘democratic disconnect’.

In their conclusion, they write: “It is possible that, even in the seemingly consolidated democracies of North America and Western Europe, democracy may one day cease to be the “only game in town”. Citizens who once accepted democracy as the only legitimate form of government could become more open to authoritarian alternatives.” 

In a political world which is becoming increasingly divided between open and closed views of government, this decline in trust could have devastating consequences. It is up to everyone in public office or public service to consider how we can rebuild trust in our institutions.

In Australia, the Australian Constitutional Values Survey shows trust in the federal government has plummeted from almost 82% to 49% in just over a decade, while trust in other levels of government has remained roughly steady.

The ACVS confirms the international data on a decline in the community’s perception of how democracy works in Australia. Yet they suggest there are still signs of public trust in government, but only where government makes itself relevant, and where it is engaged with its citizens.

My reading of this data is that it supports the need for more participatory and informed democracy, not just the continuation of a system of streamlined efficient representative democratic institutions.

The major trends affecting governments

At ANZSOG we are currently undertaking a strategic review of our offerings and how they deliver value to our government owners. With the help of our academic staff we have pulled out a list of seven trends affecting the work of the public sector today and into the future:

big data and analytics
declining trust in government 
increasing complexity
the changing profile of the public servant
evolving customer expectations.

As we talk about these major trends, of course there are some inbuilt assumptions.

We don’t yet know the extent of the effect of automation on the public service workforce, although the fact that some estimates suggest 45% or more of jobs generally are at risk does mean the public service will have its work cut out for it to manage this transition.

Zeger van der Wal, an academic at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore who teaches part of our Executive Master of Public Administration course, summarises the kind of change we’re seeing with an acronym used by the US military: VUCA.

VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Public administration is more difficult now because:

our external political environment is volatile
we face a time of technological transition, often with frequent change of government, so lack crucial information and authorisation
there is an increased need to co-design, co-produce, and work collaboratively with stakeholders (therefore complexity)
there is pressure to innovate and pilot new programs, succeed with less, and deal with citizens who expect more from you.

Changing times need new skills

In short, the world is changing, and the public service is changing with it. So what skills do public servants need in the 21st century?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development lists as the following:

insurgency, which might be better captured by disruption
iteration, ‘fail fast, fail better’ as it is known in the IT world, and then learn quickly and fix the problems with your policy reform
data literacy, a vital point given the big data trend
user centricity, consistent with the Queensland Government’s work
curiosity, an interesting but important addition; creativity or imagination might capture this better
storytelling, using narrative to paint a picture for citizens and bring them along with important government reform efforts.

To summarise these trends and skills, the public service must be comfortable creating complex responses for complex problems. That means better analytical and policy skills.

Of course, these skills aren’t simply innate. It is possible to train them on a large scale—this just takes thought, effort and commitment. This is happening as we speak in New Zealand, through a great initiative called the Policy Project.

The project states that: “Great policy advice is the foundation of effective government decision making. It underpins the performance of the economy and the wellbeing of all New Zealanders.  The Policy Project is about building a high performing policy system that supports and enables good government decision making.”

Why we can never ignore politics

All of these approaches are valuable, but I find there are a few points that these models consistently omit or under-emphasise.

Good public administration certainly requires policy understanding, and organisational skill as well, but these must be complemented with political nous.

Political nous is not about engaging politically in a partisan manner.

Rather, skilful operation in the public service should incorporate an understanding of political reality. Even the most frank and fearless advice acknowledges that policy work is entwined with politics.

As is public service more generally. Good public servants know how to navigate both worlds as they need. They understand the differences in the authorising environments and are aware of the contrasting routines and personalities in each.

Implementation is the key

To step from these interrelationships to the question of reform, policy skills and political nous count for nothing if public programs don’t consider the next step: implementation.

In his report on the Home Insulation Program and the NBN, former Secretary of PM&C Peter Shergold states that: “Policy is only as good as the manner in which it is implemented.” Even the most carefully designed policy needs to be communicated out, effectively administered and evaluated at every stage of its progress. 

As the public service increasingly commissions private and not-for-profit providers to deliver government services, strong understanding of program implementation will ensure better outcomes.

Effective management of risk is just as important in the public sector as in the private – perhaps more so. 

Sir Michael Barber’s book How to run a government so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy focuses on managing good process.

Barber argues that good process stems from routines. Institutions and managers need to set well thought-through priorities or targets, and check in on progress towards these major goals. Implementation is always the key, and should be managed properly.

These routines need to be robust, to overcome unforeseen challenges and the pull of mediocrity. Strong routines also ensure staff and the institution more broadly are held accountable. 

Why are we here? A new approach to public value

But we will need something more – a unifying idea which gets to the ‘why’ as much as the ‘how’ of government. 

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Harvard University’s Professor Mark Moore, and his ‘strategic triangle’ – which unites the three domains of public service:

‘legitimacy and support’ is the political domain, the authorising environment for your work
‘productive capabilities’ straddles the policy and administrative domains, capturing public servants and those commissioned to deliver public services
and ‘public value’ is about the end product, a new addition to the idea of the domains, the fundamental idea of purpose guiding your work and that of your department.

Public value is the theoretical concept at the heart of what ANZSOG teaches and, we believe, at the heart of all public service. A good bureaucracy works with government to deliver services, programs and policies that ultimately create public value – or outcomes that the public holds dear.

I think we need to go beyond public value and use a new framework to understand the importance of the public sector to the public.

University College London (UCL) academic Mariana Mazzucato has been doing just that, with influential work which shows how effective, entrepreneurial action can create public wealth.

This work takes the public value concept a step further to show how good public policy in this frame becomes an investment in a better future for the public.

On general issues she defines public value as a process by which public wealth is created. Public wealth is regarded as a cumulative stock of the public value already created. Therefore, public investment in policy would create value and cumulatively create public wealth.

Mazzucato provides a series of case studies to show that because government’s public investment is generally geared at improved outcomes for service delivery, we tend to forget the cases where entrepreneurial behaviour in the public sector drives eventual break throughs in technology and other products that produce private or shareholder value. 

Examples include: the internet, space technology, IT innovation, the touchscreen, nanotechnology and many of the products sold by major pharmaceutical companies.

She argues that public expenditure is productive, not simply a consumption item of the economy.

The work raises the issue that government shouldn’t just be considered narrowly as being involved in cases of market failure.

Think huge advancements in aviation technology, wifi, most of the components in your iPhone, breakthroughs in big pharma, green tech or nanotech.

In these cases, the government program where they started has generally not become rich from the proceeds of the invention. 

Instead, these technologies were subsequently exploited in the private sector and produced enormous improvements in GDP and standard of living for millions of citizens.

I believe that in today’s climate, governments can and should seek to reclaim a regulatory space for, and also a rhetorical rehabilitation of, the importance of governmental intervention in circumstances beyond market failures or other political crises.

The public sector needs to be equipped to deal with this future, because, as Mazzucato states, the public sector must continue to create substantial value for the public and for those private organisations that reap benefits from the trail blazed by earlier public programs.

The challenge ahead is to understand public value more broadly than just the delivery of services to citizens in need, and the emergency intervention of government in cases of critical market failure.

Instead, we should reiterate the capacity of public policy and government to invest in better community outcomes and public wealth, and through that process, produce public good.

Reform remains essential, and reform remains possible; the challenge within government is not only to believe this, but to act upon it.