Exploring the link between social policy and public trust

By Brenton Prosser & John Butcher

September 27, 2019

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There has been growing attention to the declining levels of public trust in our politicians, public, and democratic institutions. Recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed that trust in politics is worst among middle-income Australians. At the time, he described the public sector as central to addressing this through service delivery for “quiet Australians” who are not represented in the “Canberra bubble”. In this piece, we explore the role of the public sector in building public trust through social policy.

Historically, there has been a strong link between robust social policy and higher levels of public trust.

Former governments of both political persuasions have sought to offer a prominent vision and engaging narrative about the relationship between citizens and between citizens and government. The conventional view has been that public trust resides in a government’s fidelity to that narrative. In line with this, social policy has been seen as an essential instrument within these visions, while social security has been a major lever for social policy. Put simply, one key pillar of public trust is the ability of government to give effect to its societal narrative through effective social services policy.

However, public trust can be understood in other ways. Each has different consequences for analyses of the link between public trust and social policy.

At its simplest, one might ‘trust’ a government, politician, or political party to ‘keep promises’. As we have examined elsewhere, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deliver on these promises when governments do not have majority in both houses, or when they struggle to control the crossbench or backbench. However, examples remain.

Most would agree that sound social policy is vital to a well-functioning modern economy. Building on this, if a government views social policy in terms of record levels of spending and crises of expenditure (as well as a need to maintain a Budget surplus), then it might frame ‘public trust’ in terms of promise for sound economic management. Hence, it can be argued that the Coalition has earned public trust for delivering tax cuts and its faithfulness to a narrative of social policy as primarily an instrument of fiscal discipline.

Alternatively, one might also ‘trust’ a government because its social policy agenda is broadly ‘representative’ and inclusive. Think of Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’ or Whitlam’s exhortations to the ‘men and women of Australia’. Each of these set out a vision for engagement with institutions and inclusion of citizens. Recent examples of this are harder to find.

One of the unique features of the 2019 Federal election campaign was that an opposition party pre-released a progressive policy platform. While it failed at the ballot box, supporters maintain that this was a bold, representative and inclusive agenda that now requires repositioning. Meanwhile, the Coalition’s pragmatic approach and appeal to ‘quiet Australians’ has been successful, but does not appear to aspire to include the voices of the silenced, left behind, and marginalised. Together, these examples suggest that it is also becoming increasingly difficult to deliver representative and inclusive social policy visions as a pathway to greater public trust.

A third form of ‘trust’ might be described as democratic ‘reengagement’. This is where social policy can be part of a government vision that aims to reverse a trust deficit. This form of public trust is the focus on a new edited collection that reviews the performance of the Turnbull and Morrison governments over the most recent term. In our contribution on social policy to this collection, we found little evidence of substantial impact on public trust (either positive or negative) during this period. Rather, like the Prime Minister and other commentators, what we identify is the importance of the ongoing work of the public service in building stronger pathways to greater public trust.

Public service pathways to greater public trust

Place-based approaches in disadvantaged communities have been in Australia for well over a decade. These approaches address a specific set of local problems by giving the local community more control and accountability to develop answers. The embodiment of many years of work in this space is the Stronger Places, Stronger People initiative. This initiative offers potential for governments to work with local communities in a way that enhances civic re-engagement. The ongoing challenge to their success will be balancing ‘top down’ government cultures with a ‘bottom up’ placed-based philosophy.

Linked to these approaches is the recent public sector interest in integrated multi-service responses to disadvantage. Such approaches in schools have been identified as an effective response to intergenerational welfare dependence. Examples of new public partnerships are emerging across Australia, such as the Victorian Our Place project. Others include new initiatives in Catholic and other non-government networks. Each brings together education, health, and social services to target specific community need. This approach leverages off the public trust in schools to help improve community services and outcomes. It also provides an opportunity to rebuild trust in our public institutions amongst our most disengaged communities.

The work of the public sector around social impact investment and social impact bonds pre-dates recent Coalition governments. Intended to shift risk from government, outcome measurement onto providers, and funding to private investors, these evidence-based approaches seek to drive innovation. While concerns have been expressed about private profits being draw from social misfortune in these models, innovative examples are emerging to address these concerns.

A similar emphasis on the importance of evidence and outcomes can be found in the Try, Test and Learn fund. This initiative uses actuarial data to target long-term welfare dependency. Such initiatives can contribute to public trust through stronger connections between government, private and community sectors. It can also build public confidence in the expanded use of evidence to support policy and validate outcomes.

What will history say?

Our analysis suggests that history will not record any sizeable shift in public trust due to the Turnbull or Morrison governments’ record on social policy. That said, there remains reason for optimism. We lies in a number of initiatives, sustained by the public service, which hold potential to re-engage communities and rebuild trust in our democracy and institutions.

Dr Brenton Prosser is Director of Research for Catholic Social Services Australia. Previously, he was Director of Public Policy at Nous Group. Dr John Butcher is an ANU visitor with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government based within the School of Politics and International Relations.

This article is based on extracts from a new collection, edited by Mark Evans and Michelle Grattan, entitled: From Turnbull to Morrison: understanding the trust divide.

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