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Procedural fairness strongly linked to trust in government

The perception of fair treatment by bureaucrats “turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of trust” in government, argued Duke University’s Professor Allan Lind (pictured above) at the 2015 Australia and New Zealand School of Government conference.

This means that alienating interactions with public agencies can lead to decreased trust in government as a whole, and potentially lower levels of compliance. This can be over something as simple as feeling like you were never given the chance to have your say in a process, or public servants not explaining why a form needs to be filled out in a certain way.

Although government tends to operate as a monopoly provider, dulling the need to lure customers back, ignoring customer service can affect the legitimacy of public institutions.

Lind recalled how different his experiences were visiting the local Apple store in Durham, North Carolina and the passport office.

Whereas Apple employees are “quite highly trained about how to interact with you” and “you walk out with an iPad, quite happy, and with the feeling that it was a positive experience”, staff at the passport office are competent “but not friendly”.

He took his son to apply for a passport. “It’s a nice looking place, it’s not as fancy as the Apple store, but it’s quite pleasant. As soon as you go into the passport office you see this sign. It says: ‘passport application must be completed before — underlined in red — the appointment time and in black ink only’. Underneath there’s a sign that says ‘by appointment only’. At the very bottom, ‘knock twice’.”

If you fill out the form incorrectly, the staff will tell you to come back another time with the correct information. The woman at the passports office might know why you need black ink, “but she never told us that. So it’s difficult for us to understand why we’re being told to do these things. We don’t feel like we’re included in the process,” he explained.

“This is the essence of some of the problems government has in terms of building trust. For Pippin and me, this is one of the very few personal interactions we have with the national government,” said Lind.

“Why does the Department of State treat us like this? I think the reason is that while Apple wants us to come back and buy more apple devices, the Department of State thinks, what are you gonna do? You’re in America, where are you going to get a passport if not from us? We have in essence a monopoly here.

“The problem that I think the State Department hasn’t thought through here is: I do have a choice, I can trust you less. I can withdraw.”

Research shows that the experience of exclusion activates the same part of the brain as when one feels physical pain.

“The human brain registers exclusion. The challenge for us is how do we make people feel less excluded?” he asked.

Poll after poll shows low levels of trust in national governments. “How can we tell when they’re feeling excluded from the experience of government? Why are these trust numbers going down? My argument would be that people feel excluded. People feel less and less involved in their government.”

It turns out that the experiences that drive feelings of procedural justice are largely involved with inclusion. “They’re largely involved with how can I find some indication that I am part of the process, part of the group,” he explained.

“That fair treatment reaction turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of trust.”

Three criteria for procedural justice

Lind argues there are three parts to ensuring the perception of procedural justice. First is ‘voice’ — the recognition that you are being listened to. “What really bothers me is when I’m not listened to, when I’m not even worth hearing,” he said.

The second is being treated with respect and dignity, and the third is explanation — that the citizen understands why a process is conducted the way it is.

One study evaluated data from the Australian Reintegrative Shaming Experiments, conducted in the ACT, which randomly assigned drink driving offenders to be either prosecuted and receive traditional courtroom adjudication or have their cases handled via a restorative justice conference designed to strengthen an understanding of the moral issues surrounding the offence. Importantly, such an approach primarily relies not on public humiliation, but on explaining why it’s important to comply. The researchers found that those in the non-traditional group reported an increase in perceived fairness of the process and an increased belief in the legitimacy of the law.

Discussing the problem of high numbers of prisoners, the authors determined that: “Procedures that succeed in maximizing perceptions by offenders of procedural justice and the experience of reintegrative shaming are likely to lead to lower rates of recidivism and thus potentially lower rates of imprisonment.”

Lind added that a lot of the work he did for the US government was around the question of how can you can convince people to accept a judicial judgment, rather than simply not complying with it. “The answer we found was strongly tied to this judgment of fair process,” he said. If people felt the process was fair, they’d say “okay, I lost, but I lost fairly and I’ll go along with the decision.”

“Trust in government increases perception of legitimacy of government. Why do these people have the right to tell me what to do, why do they have a right to regulate my affairs? It increases acceptance of and compliance with regulations and decisions.

“How can I be engaged with government if I don’t understand what’s happening?” he asked.

“Looking back on my own government service, I think one of the things that I didn’t realise was how alien any given government interaction is to the average citizen.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.