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Restoring public trust in government: Ken Smith

17 April 2018

News and media


ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith

By Professor Ken Smith, Australia New Zealand School of Government Dean and CEO

The current focus on the day-to-day minutiae of scandals in government (real or imagined) can blur the fact that decline in trust in the institutions of government is a medium to long-term phenomenon which is affecting their ability to respond to future crises.

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 involved in government to consider how we can rebuild trust in our institutions.

Each and every one of us in public office or public service has a fundamental responsibility: to operate in the public interest. Identifying and striving to serve the public interest is the most important thing we can do.

Time and time again, national and international surveys tell us that people are losing faith in democracy and our major institutions. Amongst the young this malaise is even more marked.

Professor A.J. Brown from the Centre for Governance & Public Policy at Griffith University has compiled fascinating data from the Australian Constitutional Values Survey, which shows that trust in the federal government has plummeted from almost 82% to 49% in the last decade, while trust in state and local governments have remained stable, but still only just above 50%.

How can this be turned around, and how much of the turnaround is the responsibility of public servants operating outside the political realm? 

I’d like to suggest two answers to this question. One through a greater commitment to integrity, transparency and proper process, and the second by ensuring the public sector spends more time genuinely listening to and engaging with the citizens it serves.

The public will not tolerate a culture that sees political and public sector leaders immune from consequences for behaviour that is clearly unacceptable to the public. Integrity consists of more than just obeying the letter of the law: it includes a commitment to acting in the public interest at all times. 

The best practical way to lift an organisation’s integrity is to insist on good process. Integrity comes from the standards of behaviours and professionalism you expect and demand from yourself and your staff. Good process can ensure these elements are understood and delivered.

Good process stems from solid, transparent and predictable routines. These routines need to be robust, to overcome unforeseen challenges and the pull of mediocrity. They need to become habitual to the point that we all take pride in holding ourselves accountable.

These routines help with the fundamental question of coordination across agencies. And effective and successful government requires coordination across three domains: the political, the policy and the administrative. Coordination, in turn, is reliant on good process, with a solid dash of good trusting relationships thrown in.

In his book, How to run a government so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy, Sir Michael Barber uses the analogy of an iceberg: policy is just the tip, only 10 per cent of the puzzle in producing good outcomes. In other words, process is what sunk the Titanic: the hidden 90 per cent of the iceberg that makes everything possible — or not possible.

At its heart, the proper functioning of government is about better outcomes for citizens. Good process and well implemented routines help to drive these outcomes, and will also act to increase public trust in our institutions.

These issues are of increased importance in the current climate, where lack of trust in key institutions feeds the rise of populist, anti-pluralist movements.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said in 2007 that the real dividing line in politics had moved from the traditional positions of right versus left to “what I would call the modern choice, which is open versus closed.”

Blair could perhaps not have imagined how accurate his prediction would prove in 2016. Yet there is a danger in the simplistic, populist offerings of a closed politics. The success of the current international political and financial system had hitherto been one of tearing barriers down, since the “End of History” in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Openness to this diversity and success is at risk if new barriers are constructed.

Institutions have a choice: to open their arms and heart to the world, or to decide to be closed off to insights and people from elsewhere. 

While good process is important as a way of stemming declining public trust, relying on process alone is not enough. It can encourage an internal focus, and so risks being perceived as too bureaucratic. Good process must extend to active engagement with the citizenry.

In his conclusion, Barber writes that citizens will increasingly: “expect to be participants in the services they demand, not just recipients. They will expect to exercise choice as well as voice. They will be more assertive as consumers and as citizens. Governments will therefore need to be more responsive and more agile.” 

Or, in the words of ANZSOG’s foundation Professor of Public Administration, John Alford, citizens are vitally important co-producers of public value. Public institutions need to listen. Listen, think and, only then, act. A willingness to listen and deliberate is not something that comes easily. Our politicians and those supporting them are far better at providing the perception of engagement than offering the real thing. They often lack the ability to confer, to take counsel, and then carefully weigh up options.

Without the ability to talk more openly about our shared problems, and to have those representing the public interest hear these conversations, we will not be able to solve them.

A change of approach is vital because year after year, surveys like the Australian Constitutional Values Survey have reiterated the need for such a change. They document falling trust in our parliaments, our politicians, our public servants, and even democracy.

The risk is that we take the strength of our government institutions for granted, as politicians and public servants and public alike all opportunistically press for their small gains and little victories. We assume that because they have saved us in the past, they will do so in the future. In pursuit of our own goals we forge our role in maintaining and strengthening the institutions that support us.

Cambridge political theorist and historian David Runciman, warning of the potential long-term consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency, says:

“It is not possible to keep behaving like this without damaging the basic machinery of democratic government. It takes an extraordinarily fine-tuned political intelligence to target popular anger at the parts of the state that need reform while leaving intact the parts that make that reform possible.”

In short, the clear threat to our democratic institutions requires us to respond constructively and with some urgency to reverse the trends apparent throughout the world. A clear focus on integrity and the public interest will help to gradually improve public trust. Everyone in the public sector has a vital role to play in restoring these basic principles. 

This article first appeared in The Mandarin