The trustworthiness of government has rarely been so important, but can government prove itself worthy of our trust?

By Sean Innis & Ryan Young

Thursday March 19, 2020


High levels of control, low personal freedom and little government transparency are government attributes that few Australians would support. Increasing trust is important, but not every path to higher trust is of equal value, write Sean Innis and Ryan Young.

The impact of COVID-19 provides a stark reminder of the faith we place in our elected governments. Yet faith in government is in short supply, with falling trust in mature, rich democratic governments being a defining feature of the early 21st century.

Governments are not alone, of course. Trust in a range of key societal institutions has fallen substantially, with distrust characterising society’s attitude to the media and business, for example. Broad changes in our society, such as the growth of social media, have certainly played a role. But governments are not simply collateral damage in some broader societal shift. Low trust in government is, at least partly, a result of its own actions and behaviours.

Recent reviews and royal commissions tell us that some level of community scepticism of government is warranted. These reviews have identified behaviours and outcomes unacceptable to the community that were tolerated or unnoticed by government. And they remind us that a vigilant, questioning community is a valuable part of healthy democracy.

Looking around the world, many trusted governments are defined by high levels of control, low personal freedom and little government transparency. These are government attributes that few Australians would support. Increasing trust is important, but not every path to higher trust is of equal value.

The central importance of government to the health of the nation means that trust in the institutions and operation of government deserves particular attention. Government also has a unique role in ensuring that enough trust exists for society to operate well. At any time, but especially now, governments need to work hard to deserve the trust of citizens — to be trustworthy.

In thinking about trust in government, most focus falls naturally on executive government (ministers, their staff, and the public service). This is reasonable. Executive government has by far the largest day-to-day influence on Australian society. Sight should not be lost of the judiciary and parliament, but it is executive government that holds the key.

Within executive government, there lies some tricky questions around the particular roles and responsibilities of its various institutions and processes. To what extent is falling trust a reflection of ministerial performance and behaviour? How much responsibility should the public service take? What about the increased role played by ministerial offices? What about the design and operation of checks and balances, and core governmental processes?

For the citizen, these questions matter little: it is the trustworthiness of government as a whole that it important. While each part of executive government should be acting to build trustworthiness, it is how they act together that matters most.

Building greater trustworthiness first requires us to have a deeper understanding of why trust has fallen so low in the first place. It is a complicated story, with many factors at play. But from our perspective, failures in four important areas hold an important key to both why trust has fallen and what can be done about it.

Failures of delivery

It is unreasonable to expect government to deliver perfectly all of the time for everyone. Governments must make difficult choices between competing and sometimes irreconcilable objectives. Some level of disappointment in government is inevitable in the community.

On the whole, governments in Australia deliver reasonably well for their communities — at least when compared globally. But this generally sound performance has been undermined recently by clear failures of government performance as a policymaker, regulator and service deliverer.

The ongoing royal commission into aged care, for example, has identified some fundamental failures that have meant appropriate quality services and support have not been delivered. This continues a longer line of failures — such as those identified with the home insulation scheme and failures identified by the banking royal commission.

At the 2019 ANU Crawford Leadership Forum, a clear sense emerged that community expectations have risen above the ability of governments (and other institutions) to deliver. A growing gap exists between what people expect (or are led to believe) government will deliver and what actually happens on the ground.

High community expectations of government are a good thing in our society — but only if they are reasonably set. Unrealistic expectations of government harm community trust by creating an unbridgeable gap between what is wanted and what can be delivered.

Government itself must take some blame for the extent to which unreasonable expectations exist. Over-promising by successive governments has set a bar that (with the benefit of hindsight) governments have been unable to achieve. The timeliness and quality of the national broadband network and National Disability Insurance Scheme, for example, have both fallen well short of what was promised. This is a systemic issue within government (and it must be said, in the private sector as well) that does little to encourage trustworthiness.

While it is unreasonable to expect government to deliver perfectly all the time, it is appropriate to expect that government works hard to ensure that the reasonable expectations of the community are met.  This requires work at both ends — working to ensure that community expectations are high but not unreasonable and working to ensure that delivery meets acceptable standards.  These are, in a sense, the basics of government and a major driver of trustworthiness.

Failures of standards

A core principle of our democracy is that government decisions are taken in pursuit of the national interest. The ministerial oath of office requires ministers to well a truly serve the people of Australia — in effect, to act in the national interest. Public servants, while serving the government of the day, too must act in line with the national interest.

READ MORE: Get the relationships right: Allan Hawke on how to be an excellent public servant

Defining national interest is difficult and contested. Strongly competing views exist on almost every topic, and there are few areas of easy consensus. This complexity means that reasonable tolerances should be afforded to government decision-making. Elections should give governments (and their ministers) an ability to pursue their own conception of the nation’s interests.

But this ability does not provide government carte blanche. Governments must act within the law. Citizens also have a right to expect their government to transparently explain why a particular decision is in the national interest and not in the narrow interests of an interest group, individual, or party. This right, it must be said, is not a legal one. There is no general law requiring government to explain its decisions in national interest terms. But it is an important test which, when breached, acts to erode trust.

The recent sports grant affair provides a good example of failure against this standard. Considerable attention has focussed on whether the minister had the legal ability to take decisions. Clearly this is an important issue. But also important was the failure of the minister to transparently explain why the decisions taken were in the national interest, especially in instances where those decisions did not align with an independent assessment. Acting within the law is important to trust, but it is not enough.

READ MORE: Sports rorts shows need for public sector re-think

Adherence to Freedom of Information Act requirements, while lower profile, exemplifies another failure. Avoiding the technical requirements of the Act has become an art form in Canberra, with public servants and ministers subverting the intent if not the letter of the law. This is not to say the law is perfect. Respected voices argue that the current law undermines good decision-making by making too much information potentially available to the public, while other respected voices argue that the law is too restrictive.

This debate would best be resolved by changing the law if it is no longer in the national interest. But rather than doing this, the government has acted instead to undermine its own legislation. Undermining its own laws does little to encourage public trust in government.

As a final example, a pervasive feeling exists that government holds its own members to lower standards than expected from the people they serve. The issue here is unlikely to be one of intention. There is no evidence to suggest that governments deliberately set different standards for their members than the public. But it is, nonetheless, hard to reconcile the apparent treatment of breaches of parliamentary entitlements over time with the pursuit of debts from welfare recipients. This feeling of double standards is reinforced by behaviour (such as that experienced through leadership instability and the standard of parliamentary debate) that appears focussed on narrow political games rather than the interests of the nation.

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The seriousness of these examples clearly varies, some are very serious others less so. And it is possible that each individual instance can be explained, at least to some degree. But the failure of standards they embody represents a substantial barrier to higher trust.

Failures of communication and engagement

How governments engage and communicate with their citizens sets an important tone for the trust relationship. High levels of open communication by government do not necessarily translate into trust.  They can make trust harder to earn and many quite secretive regimes in the world rank highly in trust from their citizens. But uninformed trust is far less valuable than informed trust — and informed trust is the appropriate benchmark for Australia.

It would be wrong to suggest that Australian governments do not engage their citizens. Consultation and engagement are core activities of government. Data does not reveal the proportion of time politicians and public servants involved in the creation of policy and implementation of programs allocate to engaging with the public. But observationally, it is high.

The issue is not so much the amount but the nature and quality of engagement, which many see as tokenistic and partial rather than meaningful. It is also often inconsistent. The history of government engagement with Indigenous Australians provides a good example. Over time, governments have taken wildly different and often tokenistic approaches to engaging and working with Australia’s first peoples. This inconsistency has created confusion, disempowerment and reinforced distrust.

Management of public communications is another area when quality, rather than quantity, has been a problem. Messaging in pursuit of short-term government interests has too often replaced meaningful content and dialogue as the objective of government communication. A strong focus on managing the message and responding to emerging stories results in a transactional approach to communication that undermines the ability of government to communicate coherently with the community over time.

This trend can be seen in the way governments have managed the release of independent reviews and reports. It is now common for an independent review and the government response to be released concurrently, creating no opportunity for public discussion of review recommendations. The recent Thodey review of the Australian Public Service provides one example of this trend, but there are many others.

Language too is important. There is often a gulf between what terms mean to government, and what they mean outside government. Co-design, placed-based decision-making, and partnership models are all concepts often used in government communication and engagement. But the reality of how government conceives of these concepts is very different from a common community understanding. This gap often leads to disappointment and, at its worst, an undermining of trust.

No one should be in any doubt the challenge governments face in communicating and engaging effectively with Australia’s diverse population and entities. But engaging and communicating transparently, meaningfully and well is important to building trustworthiness. Improving the quality of government engagement and communications is likely to be needed if the trustworthiness of government is to rise.

Failures to adapt (fully)

Social scientists often point to an acceleration of change and complexity within society. New technology, changing social values, increased community diversity and a changing global environment all contribute to a complex picture that governments must understand, operate within, and respond to.

Communications technologies have, in particular, changed the way society and government operates. The instant availability of information and the ability for people to broadcast their views through local and global networks have created expectations that ministers (in particular) are able to respond to any question instantly. Views that previously might have only been heard at John Howard’s famous BBQ now find their way into public prominence. Changing media models are reinforcing this trend, with commentary and reflection from the competing ends of public sentiment overtaking more traditional journalistic investigation and explanation.

These trends have changed the balance of focus within government between managing issues of the moment and ensuring society is well prepared for the longer-term. Part of the response from government has been to focus far more on managing communications and the issues of the moment. This focus distracts attention and resources away from the important longer-term stewardship role government plays. The result is that many long-term issues, such as climate change, are managed through a short-term, reactive lens.

To abuse Kahneman’s famous construct, (reactive) fast thinking has replaced (considered) slow thinking in government. When issues first started emerging in relation to banking misbehaviours, age care failures, and problems in the disability system, the first instinct of government has been to manage the issue in a short-term frame. And the system has evolved to support this. The end result is that government lurches rather than sets a clear path. And in some instances (as has been the case with the establishment of some royal commissions), it has found itself outsourcing fundamental government responsibilities of stewardship of service systems and long-term policy development to others.

While some fast-thinking behaviour is always required within government, failing to retain enough slow-thinking capacity reduces trustworthiness by undermining the ability for government to coherently understand, engage with and address longer-term issues.

A second trend is also important. Within government, the rising importance of the ministerial office has fundamentally shifted the relationships between ministers and public servants. Ministers, ministerial staff, and the public service all have an important role to play in good government. Yet many within the system argue that a clear understanding of the respective roles of ministers, staffers and public servants does not truly exist — creating confusion, problems of accountability, and reinforcing the trend towards fast thinking, all of which serve to lower the performance and trustworthiness.

The rising importance of the ministerial office is itself an adaptation, and forms part of a long-term evolution from the ’70s and ’80s designed to reinforce the responsiveness of the public service to the government of the day. Few would argue that such a shift was needed. But with this adaptation has come a number of unresolved problems, which harm the ability of government to truly serve the interest of the people. Further adaption is needed to ensure that system can do this well.

Low trust only adds to the challenge governments face in responding to COVID-19. And while not every failure we identify holds lessons for the current crisis, some clearly do. Doing the basics of government well, focussing strongly on an articulated view of our national interest, and communicating clearly and honestly would doubtless help improve the trustworthiness of governments as they grapple with the growing impact of the virus.

In the longer term, it will be important for governments to come back to the full range of factors affecting trust. As we have seen, trust can be easy to lose and you never know when you are going to need it.

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