Unelected officials can play a role in rebuilding public trust

By Stephen Easton

Thursday July 7, 2016

AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

People doesn’t trust politicians much, so simply asking citizens if they trust government in general elicits some pretty negative reactions.

Look a little deeper, beyond this simplified view that lumps everything from all tiers of government together, and the situation isn’t nearly as bad. And some researchers think the unelected public officials need to play a more visible role to help restore the faith.

As agencies try to engage, co-design and collaborate with sections of the community or specific stakeholder groups, their efforts can be hamstrung by distrust of the ministers they work for. A digitised public debate has raised the bar and some see traditional democratic political systems faltering around the world.

“Actually they do care. They do engage with politics, but they’re engaging less through traditional forms of participation.”

It’s as though people are more rapidly and easily seeing through the simplistic and self-serving political fictions about how government works and how ministers perform their roles. With so much of its operations obscured by a smokescreen of slogans, banners and banal rhetoric, its principal actors are hard to take seriously.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accepted the federal election result reflected “a general distrust or sense of disenfranchisement from government” in a statement that deftly blended blame-shifting with contrition.

One of his remarks demonstrated an acute awareness of the problem although ironically, if most people believed he really meant it, he wouldn’t see a need to say it:

“It’s not about Barnaby and me, not about the media, it’s about 24 million Australians. It’s about their dreams, their aspirations, their families, their sense of security, their anxieties about the future, about government services, whether they can keep their job, whether they will get a better job and so forth.”

At face value one wouldn’t think public servants could do much about declining trust in government, which emanates from the behaviour of politicians, but perhaps they should be enlisted if political leaders want to turn the figures around.

More than just keeping the lights on

Mark Evans, the director of the University of Canberra Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, suggests a bigger role in connecting directly with the public for some of the entities that are keeping everything running while we wait for our next fragile federal government to assemble.

His work with the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House shows Australians actually trust public servants a lot more than politicians. The IGPA professor of governance says this creates a space that could be “a foundation in terms of trust-building” while other researchers from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development see a similar opportunity through the best possible frontline services.

“This is all about mainstreaming a culture of seeing like a citizen. Public services are obviously a key space for achieving that.”

“If the reputation of the political class is at an all-time low, that tarnishes the reputation of government and public services in general,” Evans told a small gathering of Institute for Public Administration Australia members in Canberra, a week out from the election.

“It opens up questions really about whether public organisations in Westminster-style democracies should actually be becoming more proactive in terms of championing the work that they’re doing, and actually engaging more effectively with the citizenry in enhancing the quality of public policy debate around those issues that citizens care most about.”

Mark Evans
Mark Evans

He acknowledged that could seem to conflict with the Westminster tradition. “But maybe we are in exceptional times and we need to start thinking about these issues.”

The collaborative project has been trying to separate people’s views about politicians from what they think of other parts of government.

“What we can identify here is that we’ve witnessed a decade of democratic decline, but the decline has become steeper since 2007,” explained the IGPA professor of governance. The caveats here are that these are only perceptions, and that expectations of government are undoubtedly going up at the same time as trust falls.

Satisfaction with Australian democracy is at its lowest level since 1996, and overall trust in government and politicians has dipped to a point last observed in 1993. Party loyalty hasn’t been this low since 1967.

Evans reports older people are the most fed up — despite having “benefited most from the post-war settlement, from social entitlements, from economic growth and superannuation” — and new citizens are the “biggest champions of democracy”.

He challenges the popular belief that Australians aren’t very interested in politics and young people are especially apathetic.

“We find that actually they do care; Australians are interested in politics,” said Evans. “They do engage with politics, but they’re engaging less through traditional forms of participation. They’re engaging less with political parties, less with established institutions.”

He believes that result indicates politicians have lost touch with how most Australians “think and behave” these days. When his 2014 survey asked what reforms might make democracy better, top responses were stronger accountability, more participation, greater localism and digitisation, especially for younger people.

Judges, police, the military, public service and universities are all considered fairly trustworthy and so are community-based organisations — just not politicians.

“We trust governments to address national security issues but we’re a lot more sceptical about their capacity to resolve other problems,” said the professor.

He notes the growing “democratic discontent” is a global phenomenon that elsewhere has mixed with anger at the fallout from the global financial crisis. The fact that Australia hasn’t suffered the same crushing economic contractions as other nations indicates something else is at play.

The growing realisation that Australian governments have not prepared for the end of a long resources boom, however, could still add to the trust problem in coming years.

“If the reputation of the political class is at an all-time low, that tarnishes the reputation of government and public services in general.”

What Australians want is “greater political accountability, open and devolved government, and consensual decision making in the national interest” and not just economic growth, but inclusive growth.

Inclusive governance, says Evans, relies on an ability to “see like a citizen” which means increasing public participation using digital technology and co-design with targeted groups of citizens, communities or stakeholders — as many agencies are trying to do already.

“Trusted intermediaries” are needed to connect and collaborate with various sectors of the community on the issues and policy domains that interest them.

“This is all about mainstreaming a culture of seeing like a citizen,” Evans said. “Public services are obviously a key space for achieving that, as are community organisations and trusted institutions. We need to build on our trusted institutions, and use them more effectively in engaging with our public.”

“Those really are the key instruments for trust-building and give a methodology for engaging much more effectively with Australian citizens.”

Service delivery satisfaction linked to overall trust

The boffins at the OECD have been looking at trust in government for years and recently tested a methodology to drill down into a single nation, for a detailed look at what various sections of the public really think about their day-to-day experiences of government.

Edwin Lau
Edwin Lau

Like the IGPA research, it aimed to push past the simple view of government as a singular mass but took the approach of looking for practical insights which the government of the unnamed country could use to build more trust.

Edwin Lau, head of the OECD’s public sector reform division, explained the focus was on the desired outcome of trust-building — greater legitimacy and therefore a stronger mandate.

“That relationship between citizens and the government is about building trust so that you can go further, so that citizens will trust governments and give them the leeway to implement what they say they’ll do in their campaign policies,” said Lau, who presented some of his team’s recent findings to the IPAA public trust forum.

“Citizens are increasingly judging governments according to their ability to ensure that all populations are served.”

Good service delivery could be “an anchor for more sustainable reforms that strengthen trust in public institutions” because perceptions of its quality are closely linked to overall trust, he said.

The survey project was designed to zero in on perceptions about the country’s public administration — as opposed to its elected representatives — based on detailed questions about its competence and the strength of its values.

“I think we live in a very cynical age,” Lau commented, explaining that asking someone if they “trust government” would only produce a predictable and unhelpful response. “But if you ask them [if they] expect government to follow through under certain circumstances, that tells you a very different story. And that’s what we wanted to get into more.”

The OECD researchers define competence as a mix of responsiveness to public concerns and needs, service quality, along with the ability to anticipate change and react to crises and disasters. They investigated three values: integrity, openness, and fairness.

“We feel that fairness is of growing importance,” Lau said. “Citizens are increasingly judging governments according to their ability to ensure that all populations are served.”

The responses led to scores for a huge range of quality measures like citizen-centricity, timeliness, consistency, accessibility and the security of personal information, to name a few. Respondents were asked to rate the likelihood of a lost wallet being returned if it was found by various types of public official, and the chance everything would still be inside.

“We see that citizens feel that they do not necessarily have a say in how public services are designed, and how they’re delivered.”

Lau wasn’t allowed to name the country, but it clearly shared some basic similarities with Australia: the Westminster system, federalism, and an extremely low incidence of overt corruption.

“We saw that there are high levels of trust in public services, but lower levels in both the national assembly and the local councils, so what’s important there is citizens are capable of distinguishing between institutions and public officials,” he told the IPAA crowd.

“And I think that’s a very important thing to note; you can see that the levels of trust in the national assembly were extremely low, while levels of trust in individual assembly members were much higher.”

Unsurprisingly, the study also revealed to the nation’s government that citizens who were less satisfied with their lives in general also had less faith in public institutions.

People’s feelings about the quality of public services, the government’s concern for future generations and its ability to protect citizens were all closely correlated with trust levels.

“We see that citizens feel that they do not necessarily have a say in how public services are designed, and how they’re delivered,” said Lau. “Even though there’s a fair level of satisfaction with public services, there’s still a feeling that those services are not being delivered in the optimal way to meet their needs.”

The example country scored quite highly on measures of fairness and quality but people still wanted more of a say in how services are delivered, indicating striking similarities with the views of Australians.

The OECD is now exploring the idea that starting public engagement in policymaking and service design as early as possible reduces levels of public anger, which can be seen expressed through petitions and protest campaigns. That seems like a sound hypothesis.


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5 years ago

As a public servant, I am discouraged from engaging in policy debate on social media, even in areas outside my portfolio, in case I fall foul of publicly disagreeing with my employer. With the rise of social media, government positions on the participation of its staff is due for an update. Public debate is the poorer for the absence of knowledgable public policy professionals.

5 years ago

So are you suggesting we put our hope and trust into James Hacker, Sir Humphrey Appleby or Sir Bernard Woolley? Elected or non-elected, Labor or Liberal …. sigh

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