Chris Eccles: governing in an era of distrust


Victorian Public Service chief Chris Eccles contemplates how government can win back citizens’ trust in his keynote address at Public Sector Week.

Trust. A concept we know intimately, and draw upon, in our everyday lives, but often find difficult to frame in our professional duties.

It’s not a homogenous concept, or simple to define. We know from personal experience that trust can be hard to earn but very easy to lose. Like fitness, trust is not inversely proportional.

Why is it relevant? As we write briefs, policy papers, and implementation plans, as we design programs, evaluations, and services, we need to consider more than having exceptional content. Context matters. Impact matters.

Trust is central to the critical jobs we have as public servants, if we are to do them well.

A lack of trust is being exploited to serve narrow interests. Our job – to serve the public interest – requires us to be guardians of trust and actively seek to build it with our whole community.

One step is to unite the public sector, individuals and communities, and elected representatives in a network of trust. This has three elements.

Firstly, citizens must be able to trust public institutions to defend their interests.

Secondly, public servants must be trusted by government and citizens for their integrity and impartiality.

And thirdly, citizens and public servants must be able to trust government to do what it says.

Building such a network can help us all govern more effectively in the current era of distrust.

The conditions for distrust

The relationship between those who govern and the governed is one of  the foundations of our society.

Yet increasingly that relationship feels like it is breaking down.

Various surveys and studies have found that public trust in government and political institutions has been decreasing in virtually all of the advanced industrialised democracies since the early 1960s.

A 2017 poll by the Lowy Institute – and I note we have the Institute’s director of polling, Alex Oliver, joining us this afternoon –  shows that as many as 36 per cent of 18-29 year old Australians say that ‘in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable’ or that ‘for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have’.

The Edelman Trust Barometer reflects these trends globally, and in Australia the number of Australians who trust government fell below 50 per cent for the first time in 2014 and was just 37 per cent this year.

The ANU’s Australian Electoral Survey confirms this decline (although a small glimmer of hope is that trust in the public service is increasing, but still isn’t above the halfway mark).

Disillusionment with our system of government has become commonplace.

In her reflections on last year’s record long federal election campaign, The Guardian’s political editor, Katharine Murphy, felt the diminishing of loyalties; saw an atomisation, fragmentation, fraying, and frustration.  She described a ‘febrile’ environment, and a tempo of impatience.

Much of this condition is attributed by Murphy to the breakdown of truth and trust in the institutions that support our democracy, including the media.

We live with a 24/7 news and social media cycle and technology that allows people to access whatever information they want whenever and wherever they want it.  Audiences therefore can increasingly choose to exist inside bubbles that reinforce their own views; but equally they can choose to use this access to liberate their thinking.

For those of you on twitter, consider for a moment who you follow – are you drawn to accounts that offer alternative perspectives or do you follow those whose views mirror your own?

The public’s trust in governments to solve problems has also been in decline.

This is partly because the problems we are trying to solve have grown more complex, requiring responses from more than one agency or department, or requiring an investment that might take longer to plan and yield results.

And partly this decline is because of public expectations that our politics are focused on new initiatives, new announcements, or new plans. Less credit is being given to governments for just doing what they say they’ll do: delivering their mandate.

The issues cycle has become more compressed, and there is a readiness to portray every issue as a crisis capable of bringing a government down.

But decline in trust is not necessarily accompanied by a disinterested public. Maybe far from it.

One of Australia’s leading pollsters, Mark Textor, says that the way Australians think about their vote is the most sophisticated of any market in which he works – they are savvy and aware of their vote’s power. Loyalties to major parties are diminishing, and replaced by the tactical voter driven by impatience and a desire to use the power of that vote to send a message.

Social researcher Rebecca Huntley has spoken also about how voters can see through platitudes, and know that problems cannot be solved with ‘simple’ solutions, but are sometimes often doubly frustrated when those ‘simple’ solutions don’t work.

Today our community is more educated, more discerning and more demanding than ever before when it comes to openness, transparency, accountability and involvement. The cultural climate has changed. Citizens are more capable and more confident that they hold some of the answers. They want greater say. They want input. They want to shape new programs to ensure they reflect contemporary values and contemporary social needs more closely.

And they want more tailored responses to ensure government services meet their individual needs, after all, even today’s fast food outlets are adapting to a made to order model.

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When trust goes, our job as servants of the public becomes that much harder.

More than just critical of government’s competence, people become suspicious of the government’s very motives.

French thinker Pierre Rosanvallon explores these concepts by considering the mechanisms by which citizens hold governments accountable.

Beyond electoral cycles, he points to citizens’ ability to monitor and publicise the behaviour of elected officials and to mobilise resistance to specific policy decisions. Rosanvallon observes that citizens’ increased education, awareness and distrust have led to greater ‘social attentiveness’  and demand for transparency.

Describing (in his terms) a ‘crisis of representative systems,’ Rosanvallon suggested associating the principles of effective representative government and transparent decision making. This is so that all citizens (or members of our network of trust) can see how decisions are made impartially, that is unbiased toward any one set of interests; and reflexively, that all whose interests are affected by the decision are consulted.

The Rosanvallon thesis highlights the strength of an institution’s governance as a central feature of its effectiveness. I will return to public service governance shortly.

Meeting the challenge

So how does the public service rise to meet the challenge of distrust?

Murphy reflects that journalists’ own behaviour has contributed to distrust of their craft and to respond, her profession should ‘double down on our journalistic mandate’ ‘by embracing traditional news values: reporting, verifying, gathering together witness statements, making a serious attempt to discover what really happened’.

Faced with similar challenges, I think the public service should do the same.

Tackling distrust in our public institutions means doubling down on our own values and mandate.

I’ll address this in three areas: our purpose, integrity, and the importance of good governance.

Our purpose

Fulfilling our role as public servants requires more than just completing tasks efficiently and effectively. Meeting our performance targets are not our only end. They’re important – and necessary – but not sufficient.

Everything we do as public servants is guided by a broader purpose.

It can be difficult to define or quantify but is identifiable in our motivation for joining the public service: contributing to a better society.

It is a series of beliefs that guide our efforts and our values: the belief that every child is entitled to a quality education, that we all have a right to feel safe in our homes, that the sick and vulnerable get the care they need regardless of means, that discrimination is wrong, that justice is blind, that long term unemployment is destructive to a community and that we must leave a healthy environment for the next generation.

I’ve spoken before on the topic of public value and, given its importance, I want to reiterate it here today.

When our desired outcomes are based on the right moral purpose we create public value. That’s an essential part of our mandate. Remembering that will help build trust with the people of Victoria.

Integrity

So does integrity.

To borrow the words of Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman (when he was discussing productivity) – Integrity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.

We could put in place the best combination of public sector reforms imaginable, but all would be brought down in an instant by simple bad behaviour.

So the maintenance of the highest personal standards of integrity, hard work and belief in what we do is crucial. This is just as much a moral challenge for us at it is a management one.

This is why the seven core Public Sector Values that make up our Code of Conduct are fundamental.

Responsiveness, integrity, impartiality, accountability, respect, leadership and human rights – these things are not a PowerPoint slide to be viewed once and forgotten. They must be in the forefront of our minds in every big and small decision we make.

The integrity of our systems and our people is critical to building trust. And when our standards of integrity are not upheld, public trust quickly unravels.

Five years ago, IBAC joined the Victorian Ombudsman and the Auditor-General as key pillars of our integrity system. We are constantly refining and updating their powers to ensure they can meet contemporary practice, operate effectively together and support their ultimate goal of preventing corruption, boosting accountability and improving the public’s trust in what we do.

There is no place nor excuse for corruption in the Victorian public sector and we are all responsible for preventing and eliminating corrupt behaviour. IBAC’s Operation Dunham was a wakeup call for the Victorian public service. It showed unacceptable behaviours. I am proud of the response from my colleagues on the Victorian Secretaries Board, who for the first time ever, united to sign a joint statement on integrity in the Victorian public service.

The purpose of the statement was not to promote fear and risk-aversion but to provide confidence that our public service leadership will back in those who want to do the right thing.

Victorian public servants overwhelmingly do their jobs with pride and enormous integrity. But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. By demonstrating integrity mindfully as individuals – in our decision making, our business practices such as record keeping and procurement, and in our interactions with others – we knit integrity into the fabric of our culture.

Good governance

Let me be clear that Victoria is well governed. In terms of the highest form of decision-making, I believe we have the most robust and effective system of cabinet governance in the country. And major policy advances and improvements in public services are happening. By-and-large, our citizens still have some trust in their government. There is a platform to work from.

But our continued success will rely on good governance and the important institutional role of the public sector as the custodians of good public governance: proper regard for the separation of powers; effective checks and balances on the exercise of unfettered power; a comprehensive and seamless process for the transfer of power; and strong mechanisms and institutions to support accountability and transparency.

Ours is not just a job. We have a duty to protect the public interest. And we have an essential public function to influence Government decision-making through professional, frank and apolitical advice.

The traditions of the public service are our bulwark against declining trust. A tradition that stems back to the 19th century and Northcote-Trevelyan and which we must embody in our work today.

We work to serve the government of the day, underpinned by values of integrity, impartiality and appointment based on merit rather than patronage. We maintain confidence and trust in the institution of the public service by providing the government of the day with the high quality information and advice they need to make the decisions they have been elected and trusted to make.

Peter Shergold’s 2015 report on the Commonwealth’s Home Insulation Program put it simply: “good government is founded on good policy and good policy depends on good advice.”

Victoria’s Public Sector Reform agenda is laying the foundations for  new ways of developing good policy and I now want to talk about some of these initiatives, and the opportunity they present us as public servants, to address the Rosanvallon call for unbiased decision-making informed by consultation with all those affected.

Challenge creates opportunity

I am suggesting today, as I have in other forums, that we should welcome people’s changing attitudes towards government. We need to embrace Mark Textor’s sophisticated, tactical voter/citizen.

A more informed, more demanding and more capable citizenry provides an opportunity for us to demonstrate that government can address people’s needs. It also affords us opportunity to recast citizens as civic actors rather than customers, and to work meaningfully with them to address some of Victoria’s most complex policy issues.

Being able to demonstrate something works will go a long way in rebuilding public trust and satisfying citizens’ appetite for information. Traditionally, government has assessed performance by measuring what it does, not what has been achieved. A focus on outcomes drives people and the systems they work in to think about their core purpose and how they can achieve it better.

Building outcomes into our everyday public sector business will take time and work is underway to embed an outcomes architecture across the VPS, giving a new focus to our evaluation and performance monitoring. This will help us demonstrate the difference our policies, programs, services and investments are making to Victorians, and the information to change our investments if needed.

As the public service has transitioned away from direct service delivery to more of a stewardship role, we have reduced our network of seismographs that once provided early warnings of economic and social change.

Consequently, we are not as well connected to some communities at a local level. Strengthening our engagement practices and building skills in areas such as co-design so we can work collaboratively with Victorians and the public purpose sector is therefore critical.

Because it is a broader network of actors that today delivers public value. Our service delivery partners have much more to add than just running programs; they should be our partners in developing policy and designing programs. Their input will enrich the conversation, and may even cause occasional discomfort, but that’s part of the mature and engaged co-design process we all need to participate in.

Today we will hear from the Deputy Auditor General, Dave Barry, on VAGO’s recent audit of public participation in government decision making. The Victorian Government makes decisions each day that impact the lives of citizens.

Working in ways that allow citizens to participate in decision making, that is to help us define the problem and design the solution, isn’t just desirable, it’s essential if we are to make significant progress on some of society’s most complex issues. For example, ensuring victim survivors have a strong voice in redesigning Victoria’s family violence system and services following the Royal Commission will undoubtedly strengthen government’s response and help us keep women and children safe from violence in our state.

In addition to improved engagement with Victorians, which helps us better understand their needs and the outcomes they desire from government, current reforms are also assisting the VPS to apply behavioural economics, psychology and richer data analytics to policy and program design.

Service Victoria is a great example.

Victoria ranks the worst out of five states for ease of government transactions. Sixty-five per cent of people prefer online services but less than one per cent are available. Fragmented services are leading to higher costs, with people needing multiple interactions across multiple channels, and lowering confidence, impacting regulatory compliance. Clearly there was an opportunity to develop a more modern and efficient service.

Rather than taking a traditional design approach which can be quite government-centric, Service Victoria used contemporary techniques to place users at the centre of its service. An analysis of detailed quantitative data allowed Service Victoria to segment and profile four distinct user types, each with differing needs. As a result, Service Victoria has designed a scalable and tailorable technology platform that gives users control of the information displayed and notifications about their personalised profiles. And with that control by the public will come trust; the trust that comes from government’s display of confidence that this public control will be exercised well.

Conclusion

So, if we take our role as servants of our great democracy seriously and really focus on our moral purpose… if we protect and serve the public interest.. if we do what we say we’ll do… if we provide frank, evidence-based advice, if we seek  genuine input from citizens and show them how it is reflected in the outcome…  if we think innovatively rather than traditionally… then the public sector will have played its part in the network of trust.

And of course if we are rewarded with that trust we can do so much more.

If Victorians are confident we have their best long-term interests at heart, it’s easier to have those difficult conversations about our policy challenges and they may be more understanding of short-term pain where required for the greater good.

In short, trust will help us work together to address the really big challenges our state is facing right now that will determine our standard of living and our quality of life well into the future.

So earn trust through your behaviour and your service to the people of Victoria. Then double down and set out to earn it again and again.

This speech was originally presented at IPAA Victoria’s Public Sector Week 2017. The Mandarin originally published a draft of the speech; it has now been updated to reflect the speech given.