The APS’s role in restoring public trust

By Mark Evans and Sean Innis

Monday March 25, 2019

Australia’s leading institutions, including government, business, NGOs and media, are among the least-trusted in the world at a time when the Australian economy has experienced 25 years of economic growth. What can the Australian Public Service do to help bridge the trust divide?

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reports ‘a world of seemingly stagnant trust’, with 80% of the world’s democracies being distrusted by the majority of their citizens. Australian democracy is not immune and is rapidly losing the trust of its citizens.

The levels of democratic satisfaction (41%), trust in politicians and government ministers (21%), political parties (19%), and federal government (31%)1 are at an all-time low, and social trust between Australians has fallen below 50% for the first time, to 47% (Stoker, Evans and Halupka, 2018).

Above all, we appear to live in a more polarised world of ‘us and them’. The sense of belonging to a successful national project is being questioned, with Australia’s income inequality comparing poorly with other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In between, an increasing number of people are feeling economically insecure, fearful for their jobs in an age of continual restructuring, cost-containment and casualization.

But what can the Australian Public Service (APS) do to help bridge the trust divide? A partnership between Democracy 2025 at the Museum of Australian Democracy, the Australian National University’s Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub, Mosaiclab and the APS was recently established to curate a series of facilitated deliberations on what the APS can do to bridge the divide.

Deliberative democracy is increasingly viewed as being the most effective way of solving complex problems in a contested policy environment that features low levels of public trust (Dryzek, 2010).

Our partnership has significant experience in hosting and organising deliberative events, building on the experience of a number of participatory formats. We have designed several deliberative forums, including the 2010 Australian Youth Parliament (Dryzek and Niemeyer), the award-winning 2007 European Citizen’s Consultation (Evans), and the 2016 citizen assembly process on regional governance in the UK (Stoker). Additionally, Mosaiclab has designed and delivered a range of citizen juries for the New Democracy Foundation, including Local Democracy in Geelong, Yarra Valley Water, and Nuclear Waste Management in South Australia (see:

The first Chatham House deliberation took place February 13-14 at Old Parliament House. It included 21 nominated delegates from every member of the APS Secretaries Board and the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Office together with four former secretaries and deputy secretaries to provide institutional memory. The serving public servants were drawn from the SES (4) and Executive levels 1 (6) and 2 (7), with one representative from the APS 6 band.

The format of the conversations ensured every voice was heard through a combination of professional facilitation, high-quality supporting documentation, and focused outcome-driven agenda. The agenda was designed to allow participants to refine their own views and define their highest priorities.

We focused on the questions: what key elements of democratic trust are broken and what needs to change to create a trusted APS?

The proceedings included conversations with experts who acted as witnesses and presented their latest findings and personal insights on addressing different aspects of the trust divide.

Our expert group included:

  • Associate Professor Ann Evans (Australian National University), on social inclusion issues;
  • Sean Innis (former Special Advisor to the Productivity Commissioner), on APS-private sector relationships;
  • former senator Bob McMullan, on APS-political relationships;
  • Michelle Grattan AO, on APS-media relations;
  • Lin Hatfield Dodds (Deputy Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet), on APS-community relations; and,
  • Professor Gerry Stoker (University of Southampton), on the international response to the trust divide.
Figure 1. The deliberation process.

The resulting report will be presented to the Secretaries Board for formal feedback, with the aim of identifying high-impact interventions for bridging the trust divide for further exploration.

The findings are currently embargoed, but what we can say is that the deliberative method was strongly embraced by our jurors, with 85% ‘very satisfied’ and 15% ‘satisfied’ with the quality of the process and facilitation. The deliberative process clearly impacts the formation of preferences, with 92% of jurors reporting their viewpoints had changed somewhat as a result of their participation, and “feeling listened to, respected and able to contribute equally at all times”. As one juror put it: “[T]he format was really interesting and enabled people from diverse perspectives to develop quality recommendations that they own.”

We can also say that trust is perceived by our jurors as being a complex and potentially “wicked” problem, with multiple causes that requires a multi-faceted, cross-sectoral response.

It is also evident, given its pivotal role in the supply of government, that the APS is uniquely placed and qualified to address certain aspects of the trust divide in authentic partnership with other governance actors. Indeed, David Thoday, the Chair of the current Review of the Australian Public Service, has highlighted that “Trust is a foundation stone for good [APS] work”.2

Trust is the glue that facilitates collective action for mutual benefit, and without trust, our ability to address complex, long-term challenges is severely constrained.

Please note we acknowledge that democracyCo was the project lead on the “Nuclear Waste Management in South Australia” jury and MosaicLab provided three facilitators.


  1. These results are in keeping with the most rigorous academic survey of opinion the 2018 Australian Values Study.
  2. See S. Easton, APS Review update: panel leaning towards a small list of big ideas, The Mandarin, 7 November 2018.

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