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Taking the lead on transparency and trust: ANZSOG Dean Ken Smith in Griffith Review

14 February 2020

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The Griffith Review is Australia’s leading literary magazine with a broad coverage of social and political movements. Griffith Review 67: Matters of Trust  examines the impact of the decline in public trust in the institutions that structure our lives and whether this marks an end-point for a social structure that is no longer tenable – or if it signals the beginning of a new era in which new forms of social organisation will arise from a gathering sense of crisis.

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith contributed the essay ‘Remembering who you report to’ to the edition, drawing on his experience in government to call on public services to take the lead in restoring trust through increasing integrity, transparency and connection to the community. 

RELATED: Professor Smith will be part of a joint ANZSOG/ Griffith Review panel in Melbourne on 5 March to discuss these issues. The event is free and registrations are now open.

By Ken Smith

Early in my career as a Queensland public servant, I attended a workshop with the renowned Professor Patrick Weller, where he interrogated me about to whom I was accountable as a public servant. I jumped right in, saying that I was accountable to my clients and responsible to the minister. Pat tore strips off me. I had it all wrong: under the Westminster system, I was only accountable to the minister, who was accountable for the portfolio performance to parliament and, ultimately – through our system of representative democracy – to the people. 

It was 1990, and I was in my early thirties. I had shifted from being a young social-policy advocate working within and outside the public service with disadvantaged people and communities to being a deputy CEO heading up housing-service delivery in what had once been an old-style state housing authority. I saw my role as advocating and assisting the communities I served and acting as a conduit and adviser to the minister of the day.

I reflect now that Professor Weller’s position, while technically correct in a strict Westminster system, actually applies to a very small cohort of senior public servants, most often involved in policy advice rather than managing direct service delivery. While all public servants should clearly work within the law and, theoretically at least, the policy positions of the governments that employ them, the great majority are involved in direct service delivery in areas such as healthcare, schools, police and emergency services, transport and environment. 

These public servants intersect with their clients on a daily basis (and, I have no doubt, believe they are accountable to them), and may progress through their career never seriously intersecting with a minister. They are trusted by the community because they are divorced from the political process – much more so than the politicians and, dare I say, senior mandarins, who are increasingly seen by the public as the insiders in our political systems and machinations.

Trust is a cement that binds our society in a common endeavour. Trust in public institutions is a valuable form of social capital. It is the prerequisite for many other policy levers to work, and for people to engage with, and often accept, change in our societal systems.

This makes it alarming that trust in governments – both elected officials and senior public servants – is declining, particularly when, compared to thirty years ago, politicians and public servants face increased and increasingly complex pressures as they try to make sense of our current turmoil. This speaks not only to technological complexity and a distinct growth of illiberalism, but also to a rise of populism, a 24-hour media cycle, and a more informed and demanding citizenry.

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer found only 48 per cent of Australians had trust in social institutions – that put us slightly below the global average of 52 per cent. Only 56 per cent of respondents reported trust in NGOs, 52 per cent in business, 42 per cent in governments and 40 per cent in the media. Professor of public policy and law AJ Brown’s reports on the Australian Constitutional Values Survey tell a similar story. Decline in trust is universal and stark. This is especially the case at a federal level in Australia. The Australian Constitutional Values Survey spans 2008 to 2017 – during that time, trust in state and local government has stayed relatively stable at around the mid-50 per cent level. Meanwhile, trust in the federal government has plummeted from almost 82 per cent to 49 per cent. The cause of this is not a mystery: there are numerous troubling cases of misbehaviour, unethical conduct and even serious corruption in public office at national, state and local government levels.

This loss of trust has damaged our political system’s ability to produce solid, sustainable policy outcomes. Over the last twelve years, Australia has seen very little public policy delivered with bipartisan support. The successes of the 1980s and 1990s – Medicare, superannuation, gun control, GST, national competition policy – have been replaced by a series of intractable debates around the environment, energy policy, and the future of economic and workplace reform.

This is taking place at a time when Australia faces a set of challenges that increasingly affect our economic performance and social cohesion – a time when we need strong policy solutions. These challenges include climate change and drought, growing income inequality, declining school performance, a failing vocational training system, slow fixed-line broadband and an ageing population. While all developed nations are facing similar issues, Australia does not always fully recognise these challenges, let alone attempt to develop a coherent strategy to address them.

This makes it urgent that the public service yet again reinvent itself to ensure that its core functions – advice to governments, policy implementation and service delivery – are fit for purpose for the twenty-first century and simultaneously work to restore trust in the system. This difficult set of objectives cannot simply rely on old notions of representative democracy, but requires greater transparency and genuine engagement through considered and deliberative processes with the community.

Although I have spent most of my working life in and around the public service, my starting point in saying this is not nostalgia for the past, but empathy for those still putting in the hard yards in a far more complex and contestable environment than I encountered. The days of the manual typewriter, telex and fax machine are ancient history; even further removed are the times where a prime minister could spend months in the United Kingdom while very competent public servants ran the government. In a world shaped by social media, people expect access, engagement and immediacy. This is on top of the usual expectations of honesty, expertise and a government that acts in the public interest. The absence of meaningful connections between citizens and government creates a space where misinformation and mistrust can flourish, with social media acting as the vector.

Not engaging with reform in all its complexities is simply not an option. The real challenge is how to engage in a deliberative and effective way while respecting the broader responsibility of the public sector to follow process, to act ethically and in accordance with evidence and – most importantly – to deliver public value.

If we don’t do this, the loss of trust can become a ‘vicious cycle…[that] separate[s] bureaucrats from citizens, increases friction in society, produces suspicion of government motives, and resistance to government, even when it is against the citizen’s own interests’, to quote Nikolas Kirby and Simone Webbe’s recent report to the Australian Public Service (APS) review.

How does a contemporary public service respond to these challenges? We are at a point where public services recognise that the old ways are, in many cases, no longer working, but to date no new ways have clearly emerged. This creates uncertainty within the public service as to what its future role should be. 

I don’t want to simply catalogue problems here, or lament our decline into a much more divisive politics and an increasingly partisan media. Our public services remain a powerful actor for good in our system, with unmatched expertise and capability to provide an important stewardship role. Of interest is what they can do to restore trust and create the conditions for good policy, regardless of the impact of partisan politics. 

The public service needs to be better at promoting integrity, better at embracing transparency and better at working with its citizens and a growing variety of geographic and other communities of interest. This process must vary and be centred on approaches that suit a ‘them’, not an ‘us’. The key long-term challenge is how to help governments become more engaged with citizens and involve them more fully in policy development, ensuring that the political system does not simply engage with narrow sectional interests. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has often referred to the ‘Canberra bubble’, but such a term could easily apply to any state capital. This is a challenge for public servants as well as politicians. The advice public services give must be informed by as broad a range of views as possible, not solely shaped by stakeholders with particular vested interests.

Australia’s past history of successful policy reform often required brave political leadership. It also required advice from the public service that was not part of any existing orthodoxy. While a functioning public service should be an agent for policy reform, not an obstacle to it, it should also be able to prepare and anticipate reform on its own rather than sit back and wait for politicians to direct its commencement. If public servants hadn’t worked through reform proposals for gun reform in Australia over many years, former Prime Minister John Howard could not have seized the moment after the Port Arthur massacre to successfully implement gun law reform. Similar controls informed the recent policy changes in New Zealand after the Christchurch massacre.

Some of the most successful examples of complex public policy – such as the implementation of compulsory superannuation – have come from an attempt to look at reform that can achieve far-reaching outcomes for the broader community. That is why public services need to continually advocate for an evidence-based view of policy and the collection of high-quality data. 

In many policy areas, major blockages to reform arise not from heated partisan politics, but from ‘stakeholder’ politics. Public servants should continue to work away in these areas to develop, and make the case for, good public policy. As a previous senior public servant once advised me, it is important to keep a drawer full of great policy ideas to be pulled out when the timing is right. Losing this capacity for long-term thinking leaves the whole system worse off.

At a more practical level, public servants can drive change in many areas. Rather than building bureaucratic empires, federal and state public servants should find ways to enhance an integrated, cross-jurisdictional approach that is blind to the responsible level of government, and focused on co-ordinated service delivery at all points of the community’s life cycle or key events (such as birth and early childhood, schooling years, post-school pathways, lifelong learning, post-retirement, aged care, and so on). In a similar way, public servants can play a major role in ensuring proper subsidiarity and respect for local, place-based decision-making in areas such as health and education. Little political progress has been made in resolving structural issues that reduce the potential of a federal system, but there are real opportunities to improve trust in communities by focusing on local empowerment and using technology to work around the different spheres of government and offer seamless service delivery.

Public servants must be vocal about the challenges we face, and the need for governments to take a long view. This was once part of the culture of the public service, but in many cases it has been replaced by a timid approach that fails to understand the historic role of public servants as providers of frank and fearless advice. It also fails to grasp the potential influence of senior public servants on policy and service-delivery outcomes.

One of the key changes in the environment in which public servants work is that elected officials can now access a great range of advice from different sources, whether they be academic or from think tanks, political advisers and organisations representing specific interest groups. This underscores the point that public service advice is, and should be, contestable. 

This does not mean that public sector advice is irrelevant, or that public services must focus solely on implementation or service delivery. Providing expert, unbiased, evidence-based advice is still, and should always be, a key part of the public service’s role in developing good policy. Governments that rely on advice shaped by vested interests or seen through the ideological lenses of partisan think tanks will often produce bad policy, and public services should be ready to push back against this. But as political scientist Anne Tiernan has noted, ‘ministers rely less on departments for policy ideas and advice than in the postwar era, partly due to continuing uncertainty about the APS’s ability to provide robust, good-quality, relevant advice. The APS’s institutional memory and policy expertise has declined, while the ability of other actors to contribute to this understanding has increased.’

Any process of good policy has a strong consultative focus, and the public service should focus on advice that synthesises input from as many sources as possible. Its advice must be informed by the roles it plays right across the policy cycle, from design through to implementation and evaluation, and its knowledge of how each of these phases affects the others.

The plethora of alternative advice does not necessarily result in a decline in policy expertise or capacity in the public service – this is impacted as much by political uncertainty regarding the role of the public service in this contestable environment. Yet it is vital that the ability of the public service to develop and implement policy remains at the centre of our governance systems in Australia.

We need a better, more realistic view of how policy operates – one in which the public service is one purveyor of advice among many, where advice is as open as possible (and preferably maximises that available in the public realm) and where it is legitimate for politicians to ignore what is suggested to them – provided they offer an explanation.

Part of this advisory function is to inform governments about issues that, although marginal, are moving to the centre of the debate. If you believe that ‘good policy is good politics’, then anticipatory advice is an important part of the public service’s role. When governments have an abundance of hubris and don’t make decisions based on broad engagement and understanding of the community, policy will be bad and governments will undoubtedly suffer politically as a result.

While providing frank and fearless advice does mean some advice needs to be kept secret, public services must always push back against unnecessary secrecy. The notion that greater transparency, such as that provided by freedom of information (FOI) regimes, can lead to a diminution of the public service’s capacity to give free, frank and fearless advice is simplistic. Public service advocates of this position (of whom there are many) posit that advice given by the public service could embarrass the minister or government if made public, and could therefore significantly affect the productivity and trust relationship between the public service and the political class. This, however, supports a fallacious notion of trust. The focus must be broadly on promoting public trust in our institutions as a whole, not between discrete segments of them.

This may be overly simplistic in turn, but I contend that it could happen for two broad reasons: first, if the public service’s advice is not based on evidence and not nuanced to enable consideration of all workable options; and second, if the advice embarrasses the minister and the government because it doesn’t align with its own partisan view or that of its sectional interests – irrespective of the evidence presented.

In both situations there is a strong case for transparency. There is an incentive in the former to provide the highest quality evidentiary advice, and in the latter to fully and explicitly explain a decision or position if an alternative decision is made in order to ensure that it is legitimately and consistently in the public interest.

The wider issue of transparency is one with which government has always struggled, and it is an area in which public services are at least as culpable as elected representatives. The importance of transparency, and its impact on public trust, has increased because of vast technological changes that have made sharing information so much cheaper and easier. Government processes cannot be separated from the issue of trust. Not everyone will agree with every government decision, but improvements in transparency can build trust more broadly. 

Take the example of our near neighbour, New Zealand, where cabinet documents – with a few exceptions – are made available after thirty days, with no negative impact on the quality of Cabinet deliberations. Rather than making secrecy and confidentiality the default option, documents and data should be made available as a matter of course, unless there are compelling reasons not to. It’s no surprise that New Zealand constantly has the highest levels of trust internationally and rates at the top globally for transparency and open government.

But decisions about what data to release are often based on avoiding potential negatives for the public service or government of the day; they ignore the potential positives of making information available to the collective capacity of our universities, not-for-profits, businesses and concerned citizens. This makes FOI laws necessary for a democracy, and their scope should be expanded. Under FOI regimes, the benefits largely go to the general public through greater transparency and quicker exposure of government failures. But the costs, in terms of time and resources and potential loss of reputation if damaging information is released, are largely borne by governments. Without cultural change and recognition of the value of more open government, release of information will always be the exception and not the rule.

Greater transparency is also a precursor for genuine government engagement with the community. The next frontier of transparency is how governments use the high-quality datasets they collect and how they allow government and non-government actors to use them to deliver both private and public value. If data is the new oil, governments are sitting on priceless deposits. Working out how to make best use of them – when privacy concerns are addressed – should be a priority, and doing so will help us move towards a version of democracy more suitable for the twenty-first century: one where government and citizens have access to the same information and work together to solve problems and set priorities for their society.

If private companies use big data to target advertisements and products at individual consumers, when will governments work to target services at individual citizens based on their needs? Technology and big data hold huge potential to render irrelevant the silos and agency-based structures of the public service and allow it to focus on its core mission of delivering public value. Few governments are taking full advantage of these opportunities.

Institutional integrity should also be part of this core public service mission. In their recent APS review paper, Kirby and Webbe argue for developing various approaches to institutional integrity, where integrity is defined as a collective virtue of the institution itself, achieved by the co-ordinated stewardship of its public officers. Leaders and officers should not only comply with rules and promote shared values; they should also take leadership and responsibility for ensuring that the combined effect of those actions is an institution that the public regards as consistent, coherent, legitimate, praiseworthy, virtuous and trustworthy. In terms of practical measures to improve institutional integrity, this means making merit-based appointments, terminating any contracts with reason and minimising post-employment conflicts of interest for public servants.

The quickest way for public services to lose their public’s trust is to be caught acting corruptly. Misbehaving individuals can be removed and punished, but the damage to the system lingers. In this regard, it is vital that a federal anti-corruption commission is established, but integrity must move beyond simply the absence of corruption.

The work of an anti-corruption body must then be complemented with a pro-integrity focus to monitor and lift general standards of integrity across the public service. It should not be left to politicians to debate these issues of integrity, particularly when they can be seen to have conflicts of interest. Public sector leaders must take responsibility and advocate for integrity reforms that support their own long-term stewardship of the public sector.

Another factor in the loss of trust has been a sustained narrative against government and the public sector over the last thirty or more years. The view of the public sector as inherently inefficient and a drain on the economy – only required, if required at all, to act when markets fail – needs to be questioned. The pendulum is now swinging back against that view – but it has been internalised by a public service that is now often reluctant to defend its many achievements.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato’s influential work extends the definition of public value to show how effective, entrepreneurial action by governments can create public wealth. In The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (PublicAffairs, 2018) Mazzucato moves this understanding beyond false and simplistic dichotomies of an innovative free market versus a meddling and inefficient regulatory state. She challenges the notion in economic orthodoxy that value can only be created by the private sector, and that the public sector is simply a consumption part of the economy and a barrier to economic growth and prosperity.

Trust in government must be maintained 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. This is in addition to the permanent benefits of policy innovation and success and finding better ways to deliver value to the public. Our public investment in medical research and public healthcare have had demonstrable benefits in improving various health outcomes, and this is particularly clear in improvements in age-specific mortality rates and many areas of morbidity. This public investment has created tangible opportunities for the whole community – albeit with some continuing problems in equal opportunity to access and achieve similar outcomes in areas such as health and education.

It’s easy to look back with rose-coloured glasses. So many things have changed since my public service days up to mid-2011. Nonetheless, the public service must not only retain but increase accountability to the individuals and communities it serves on a daily basis. This must clearly be within the policy framework set by the government of the day.

Our democratic systems are undeniably subject to increasingly sustained challenges. They have historically proved both resilient and adaptable – the difference now is the pace and unpredictability of the change they face.

Now more than ever, we must see the public service itself as one of the important institutional pillars of our democracy, and public servants must advocate internally and externally for policies that promote public trust. Building on ideas of transparency and more open government, institutional integrity, expanding policy and advisory capacity, changing the public sector narrative and ensuring informed engagement, public servants need to use their influence to take up the big policy challenges we face. They are not simply an extension of the views of a particular minister, but play a vital role in sustaining our liberal democracy and ensuring it flourishes to serve the presiding government.

They have an important stewardship role in terms of improving transparency, integrity and engagement with citizens. This is not a distraction from the work of delivering on the policy reforms of any given government. It is an essential part of it.