Dissecting recent recommendations for renewing public trust in government

By Pia Andrews

October 10, 2019

THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.

Government: the very word invokes quite different responses for different people. To some, it means the frustrations of politics, regulation or paperwork. For others, it is a roadblock to game. For many, it is simply a necessity for public services, laws or national security. For still more, it is a word that invokes fear: fear of punishment, having children or entitlements take away, or of personal information being misused.

Trust is hard when you are so many things to so many people, especially when you are both the social worker and the cop. So, trust arguably needs to be about ensuring you are seen as trustworthy, fair, accountable and values-driven. Trust is something you need to earn every day, not something you ask for.

In a world where the Internet and technology have dramatically sped up change, complexity and the distribution of power (albeit unevenly), it is fascinating to see yet another round of public discussion on how to renew public trust in government. Sadly, this often results in the same old ideas: good practice, capability improvement, and public participation. All of these assume to improve the supply side of good governance, but not necessarily the demand nor the core reasons for declining trust.

Where is the discussion about the conflation of politics with public sector? Or the need to ensure traceability and explainability of decision-making where automation or Artificial Intelligence is used? How can our public services operate in a citizen-centric, transparent and trustworthy way when they are under constant pressure to simply cut costs or react to whatever the minister of the day wants? How can policy and service designers engage with citizens and communities when anything said publicly is seen as the domain of professional communications teams?

Democracy 2025 worked with senior executive officials from the federal government to create nine recommendations to renew public trust for consideration by the Secretaries Board. On one hand, it is great to see more deliberative processes being explored by senior executives, and kudos to Democracy 2025 in supporting this approach. But the recommendations reached are already widely accepted as being good practice and have been endorsed in different forms several times over the past decade. So what are the barriers to progress here? I would suggest the recommendations wouldn’t be sufficient to address declining trust, and don’t address the core blockers that continue to make good practice very hard to achieve in public sectors.

The nine recommendations are below, with some of my thoughts on might help to successfully implement them, informed by my experience in multiple public sectors in Australia and overseas. Please note the order is changed from the article linked above for ease of analysis.

The recommendations to support good practice

  • To maintain the central role of the APS in the Westminster advisory system, capability needs to be enhanced through the adoption of the best innovation and evidence-based practices.
  • To ensure programs and services are fit for purpose, citizen-centred design should be a first principle of policy and service development.
  • To ensure a sustainable future, long-term strategic policy systems should be built on key policy issues (e.g. the economy, climate, ageing, geopolitics, education, health and wellbeing).
  • To deliver on the APS’s role as defined by the 1999 Public Service Act, courageous and authentic leadership is required at the senior executive level. This should be enshrined and measured through the achievement of the APS vision, putting public service values into practice, meeting accountabilities and delivering positive outcomes for Australian communities.

All of these recommendations are pretty obvious, so what are the blockers?

Well, the first issue is demand. You can design the best evidence-based, citizen-centric, long-term policy or service you like, but if the minister or secretary doesn’t want it for any reason, then it dies a silent internal death, often to be resuscitated a few months or years later. You can put measures into place but if they don’t tell the story that the media team wants, then the story or metrics are changed. Basically, to see sustained improvement of good supply, there needs to be demand for what is good, not just what is expedient.

Realising policy intent is impossible when policy and implementation teams don’t work together. You need to have more agile, user-centred but also visionary policy methods that engage users/citizens and implementation folk in the earliest stages of policy development. And implementation requires policy folk be involved, to ensure success is measured according to the intended policy outcomes and not just the usual project or service measures that are captured at the end of the process.

READ MORE: Regulatory capture: did we need a royal commission to bust it wide open?

The measurement recommendation also talks about achieving the APS vision, but this is a difficult thing to articulate when there are now generations of people in the public service who have been taught to believe the vision of the APS is to do whatever the politics of the day dictates. This lack of an agreed foundational vision for our public sector leads to building castles on sand, and loses credibility with the communities we serve. If the public service were perceived by the public as apolitical, values-driven and existing to ensure public good, then, I believe, we would certainly see greater trust and engagement.

So, to achieve these recommendations, I would suggest we need the secretaries to support:

  • Working in the open. If the public sector simply worked more openly in the design and delivery of policy and services, it would create opportunities for people to participate and greater peer review, it would increase systemic incentives to get the best, evidence-driven outcomes, and it would help improve trust in those same policies and services. In short, working in the open creates both a demand for the good and a means of achieving greater good. It also makes it easier for reuse of the evidence and work by other programs.
  • Establishing a more apolitical public sector, with merit-based apolitical heads of departments, and a clear APS vision that connects with and reflects the values of the communities we serve as well as the foundational core responsibilities of the public sector, independent of the government of the day.
  • Updating the policy toolkit and measures to ensure agile, user-centred and test-driven methods are part of usual policy development, and form multi-disciplinary teams around end-to-end policy programs rather than everyone just handing off to the next area of responsibility.
  • To stop assuming that sharing data will magically improve things, especially when purely data-driven policies often get normative outcomes. Consider strategies to inform policy and decision-making that protect the dignity and privacy of citizens, and create public governance and security statements to assure citizens that data about them is not inappropriately reused. It is hard to ask for trust while simultaneously trying to share citizen data without any new commitments to controls, accountabilities or transparency.
  • An agreed and holistically applied approach to measuring impact beyond pure economics is needed to embed genuine citizen-centric practices, prioritisation of funding and outcomes. Adopting something like the Human Service Outcomes Framework from the NSW government, or the Intergenerational Wellness Framework from the NZ government to all federal government policies, services and programs would create a huge shift in incentives, prioritisation, leadership and alignment of everyday public sector efforts with genuine community needs.

The recommendations for participatory governance

  • To ensure that programs and services meet the needs and aspirations of the citizenry, the APS should embed a culture of authentic, early, regular and open citizen engagement to drive policy development.
  • To counteract truth decay and communicate effectively with the citizenry, the APS needs to engage in public policy debate to justify actions, explain policy and present evidence in an honest and reliable way.
  • To improve civic and whole of government understanding of public policy decision making, a public right-to-know guarantee should be provided through an open government information framework (subject to normal exemptions).

While it is great to see the sentiment of participatory governance in these recommendations, these principles have broadly been agreed for decades, so what is holding us back? The APS has very strict rules at the moment that make it both very risky and scary for public servants to engage openly about anything, which has led to a systemic issue of most public sector engagement being funneled through professional media and communications teams. This creates a significant barrier and bottleneck to authentic, early, regular and open citizen engagement. Even just operational blogging can prove too difficult for many public servants, let alone substantial public engagement. Public servants need to be able to engage with people and communities directly. We need to be trusted, as the professionals we are, to engage public participation in policy, service and program design and implementation. We also need to have greater secretary commitment to open government as the default practice of our public sectors — not as a nice-to-have.

Once you get beyond the public sector barriers there is also the biggest challenge for participatory governance: time! Most people are busy all the time. They are at full-time work, full-time at home, and have no capacity to contribute to anything beyond their immediate family and work needs.

So, to achieve these recommendations, I would suggest we need the secretaries to support:

  • Updating the social media policy and APS Code of Conduct to explicitly support all public servants to engage online and with the public as part of their professional work, with appropriate support, training and guidelines.
  • Differentiate official communications and professional communications, where the former is the domain of communications/media teams, but the latter does not require approval or oversight from communications teams nor approval from ministerial offices. This would free-up public visibility substantially and improve public trust in the professionalism, expertise and services of our public sector. Frankly, there is a lot of business-as-usual public engagement that should be happening every day, rather than limiting public engagement to large communications campaigns.
  • Ensure all public consultations are discoverable in the one place, with people able to subscribe to notifications about consultations. This would make it easier for people to tune in and contribute more easily.
  • Establish equitable participatory programs that address the issue of citizen capacity. For instance, perhaps new major policy proposals could include a ”citizen policy duty”, where a demographically representative group could be paid their time — like with jury duty — for a few months to contribute to the policy development? Or a civic gap year, for a number of people each year to enter the public service from all walks of life to contribute to policy areas of interest where they have experience or expertise. If we don’t create equitable means of participation, then consultations or collaboration will continue to the domain of those lucky, privileged enough or paid to have time on their hands.

The recommendations for capability development

  • To benefit from the diversity of knowledge and experience in different sectors, APS staff should be mandated to rotate into other sectors and jurisdictions.
  • To build strong and effective working relationships between ministers, political advisers and the APS, collaborative learning and development opportunities should be developed and senior departmental officers rotated to adviser positions in ministerial offices.

These recommendations are fine, but they miss the critical point that public sectors have expertise that would be of value to other sectors. Therefore, I suggest we also need the secretaries to support:

  • Rotations into other sectors and jurisdictions should include reciprocity arrangements to also bring and share public sector expertise, including with non-profit and community organisations.
  • Ministerial staffers being rotated into the public service as frontline public servants, to better understand how the system works and where there are genuine challenges.

What’s missing?

To my mind, if the focus were on renewing trust, the biggest missing piece in the recommendations would be shifting the narrative from “getting trust” to “being trustworthy”. For an article that implies all the benefits of citizen-centric design and public participation in policy, it might have been helpful to involve citizens in developing or at least testing the recommendations. Trust isn’t given — it is earned. And it would be very helpful to ask people “what it would take for you to trust government?” I ask people that question all the time, and the answers are often surprising.

So, what do people need to see from the public sector to trust it? What does the “trust infrastructure” for the 21st century look like, especially when you consider the opportunities and threats when using Artificial Intelligence and automation in the delivery of policy, services and regulation? How can we ensure people’s rights and dignity are maintained in the day-to-day work of our public sectors rather than being motivated by purely economic drivers?

These are all things to discuss “authentically, early, regularly and openly with citizen engagement to drive policy development”, to quote the recommendations, and I hope some of these ideas help public servants to consider ways of increasing trust through your actions, openness and engagement.

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