Trust, truth and public administration: Canberra’s dialogue

By The Mandarin

Tuesday November 14, 2017

Earning trust is never easy, and these are particularly distrusting times. People who work in and around Australia’s governments are in Canberra this week to compare notes on what might enhance or detract from the credibility of public sector institutions.

Last year the national conference of the Institute of Public Administration Australia was all about innovation. This year’s theme suggests “thinking differently” will also help with efforts to shore up public trust, and conference chair Carmel McGregor hopes to hear some concrete ideas.

“We can all sit around wringing our hands, but what do we do about it? That’s really the call to action,” she explained.

“It’s a turbulent, changing environment but the public service are the stewards and we need to understand what it means for the future, and how we actually rise to the challenge of building trust.”

The Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management, a Canberra fixture every year, are being announced along with the latest crop of IPAA national fellows at a formal dinner tonight, where Peter Shergold takes over from Penny Armytage as IPAA national president.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson (pictured) should be back from APEC just in time to host the conference tomorrow, as IPAA ACT branch president, and this year’s Garran Oration will be delivered by the former prime minister of New Zealand, John Key.

The first discussion centres on the post-truth political era, where multiple dubious claims of fact compete and opinions, feelings and ideologies are becoming increasingly powerful. Or, if you prefer, the “death of deference” — not just towards public officials but to scientists and experts in general.

McGregor said the organisers planned to bring in perspectives from outside the sector through speakers like political journalist Laura Tingle and Griffith University professor Anne Tiernan, who join Shergold in the first session.

“We wanted to attract a range of actors, so not only people within public service but people who are sort of on the outside, looking in. They’re observers but they can also shape opinion themselves, so we’re quite interested in what will be said from those perspectives as well,” she added.

“The role of social media is a phenomenon that is different and that’s posing challenges which the public service needs to deal with, but equally it needs to interact with those sorts of actors to help build the conversation.”

On the other hand, liberal democracy encourages scepticism of elected government and this should be expected, even welcomed, by those who occupy its offices.

Perhaps another part of the answer is a greater understanding of how beliefs form to start with, and what this familiar scepticism looks like in a globalised, hyper-connected world, where old and new influences combine in both social and modern mainstream media.

But even leaving aside a normal level of distrust that governments often amplify through their own missteps, it is clear that something has changed. The old methods of communication don’t work like they used to and the official version of the facts is regularly contested – by political leaders as much as anyone – even when it’s based on clear evidence, and there is little in the way of a credible alternative.

From compulsory vaccination to climate change, post-truth politics is increasingly evident. It’s time to stop being dumbfounded at how many people can refuse to believe a large number of credible experts armed with strong evidence in favour of far shakier claims. It’s time to engage with this phenomenon, as former APS commissioner Stephen Sedgwick did last year.

Other speakers include the recently retired Jane Halton, a veteran of the Commonwealth Secretaries’ Board, and Stephen Kennedy, who became one of its newest members when he was promoted to lead the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development this year.

There’s four other current agency heads on the bill including Duncan Lewis, the director-general of ASIO, and Michelle Bruniges, who leads the Department of Education and Training.

State governments are represented by Kym Peake, secretary of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, and Mark Scott, who succeeded Bruniges as secretary of the New South Wales Education Department.

Following the conference, there’s an academic symposium on Thursday. “It’s a research day hosted by IPAA and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis to progress this theme with academics from around Australia and continue the conversation,” McGregor explained.

Delegates will also hear the views of Canadian High Commissioner Paul Maddison, ANZSOG chief executive Ken Smith and the OECD’s head of public sector reform, Edwin Lau, who will appear on video and try to provide a global perspective on how governments are dealing with this trend.

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