Trust crisis: can a big government still act local and involve citizens?


There’s a crisis of public trust in the processes and institutions of government, part of a growing distrust of all voices that once spoke with authority, and people who work in the public sector need to work out how to respond to the phenomenon.

“I think in many ways we’re long on description but short on solutions,” commented Griffith University Professor Anne Tiernan last week, in the opening session of the annual Institute of Public Administration Australia conference.

The institute’s new national president Peter Shergold reeled off worrying statistics and his own fears about the death of reasonable public debate. Tiernan chose not to linger over the same ground but sees “potential sources of optimism” amid the gloom.

She and many others think at least part of the answer could be found in more localised, “place-based” initiatives that involve citizens, policy wonks, frontline public servants and service providers working together.

Anne Tiernan.

Shergold sees hope in more participatory direct democracy, both online and otherwise, and pointed out that a lot of citizens enjoy contributing to public-purpose activities, and will happily volunteer. “I think the great chance for public servants now is to become facilitators,” he said.

He added that “in a world of commissioning, the task for the public service — the exciting task — is to get the not-for-profit sector, the private sector, the public sector, actually working together” in the public interest and to create more genuinely citizen-directed services.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, reference du jour at the conference, essentially tells of a dramatically accelerating global rise in cynicism, including in Australia. The very long-running Australian Election Study indicates a similar trend, as does more recent research by the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.

Typically when you ask more specific questions, it seems public servants are retaining slightly more than others who communicate with the masses, including politicians, journalists, NGOs and religious leaders.

Shergold pointed out that some of the most trusted people in society — teachers, nurses and emergency services — are frontline public sector workers who deal directly with citizens every day. This fact speaks to an “extraordinary opportunity that the policy class does too little to acknowledge,” in Tiernan’s view.

She sees a kind of “smugness” in both the political class and the bureaucracy as one thing that has made voters turn away from mainstream parties and towards populist “anti-politicians” like Donald Trump.

“I think for a long time we have failed fundamentally to understand and apprehend that the political processes and institutions that we continue to be a part of — and I include myself — have been incapable of delivering equitable, fair services and outcomes for people, in place,” Tiernan told the conference.

“… It is fundamentally about the inability to understand people’s lived experience, and it is no surprise to me that people feel deeply alienated by perceiving themselves to be excluded from the benefits of economic reform [and] social and other changes.”

She says government needs to “adapt to an increasingly diverse and pluralised citizenry and to those large blocks of voters clustered in particular cohorts … and locations” who are disillusioned for real reasons, like high unemployment resulting from major “structural adjustment” that sees industries change.

“It’s no wonder that people will turn to populist, anti-establishment, anti-politicians,” said Tiernan, who was named a National Fellow of the IPAA in 2010, and holds several active roles in the Queensland public sector. She said she would be watching the state’s election with great interest to see if the same occurred; the results show a big swing to One Nation that failed to translate into many seats.

Shergold thinks digital democracy can “empower citizens to engage in political processes and to influence public policy” — sentiments the authors of the Trust Barometer have also picked up on:

“To rebuild trust and restore faith in the system, institutions must step outside of their traditional roles and work toward a new, more integrated operating model that puts people — and the addressing of their fears — at the center of everything they do.”

Tiernan said the experience of public servants at the frontline of delivery was not respected enough, as Shergold and others have in the past. “It’s been described many times but nothing has kind of really been done about it,” she said.

“I mean, I want to contest the idea of the public service as ‘expert’ — with respect.

“I don’t know that that’s any longer true, if it ever was. And I’m not saying that to be offensive, I’m saying that because the more I know, the more I know I don’t know, and it’s just goddamn frightening how much there is to know.

“… I think there’s a potential but it actually requires a different set of modalities and repertoires than are currently being exercised, because what I see is people totally attuned to responding to short-term ministerial requests … in order to deal with an issue that’s not substantive in the longer run.

“And we know all the reasons why that is; the challenge is what to do about it.”

Shergold also lamented that successful collaborative and participatory approaches were happening but only on the “peripheries” of the public service. Tiernan believes the “policy elite” essentially needs to get over itself.

She thinks the most valuable knowledge will come from “networks” of the various different actors, and that “a more place-based approach” is often the best way to achieve this.

“These kind of opportunities to share don’t penetrate the centre because our whole system has become so centralised, so leader-focused, and by extension, so CEO-focused, because they’re in that endless cycle of responding to ministers.”

Return to regulation

Journalist Laura Tingle thinks it’s important to consider how government’s role in society has changed, as well as our perceptions of it. The experienced business and politics reporter pointed out that ministers used to get most of the blame for crises in the private sector, like when interest rates went through the roof or companies collapsed.

Laura Tingle.

“We often tend to think of the public sector as policymakers, at the expense of thinking of its massive regulatory task,” she said, pointing out that neoliberalism led to politicians who don’t see their regulatory role as something to be proud of, even though there’s been a return to financial regulation since the 1990s.

“But in the case of financial regulation, I think we have an overhang of the sentiment that saw bank deregulation as a clear signal of free-market machismo on the part of both sides of politics.”

Politics has become a form of cheap melodrama for the masses, she added. It still fills television, print and online news with cheap content. “And it’s content that has increasingly been about the day-to-day soap opera of political personalities, or the acrimony of what almost anybody in the community thinks about it, not so much about what the underlying issues at stake might be.”

Business leaders are now among the villains in the pantomime, and politicians get less of the blame for financial crises, she pointed out.

After the Global Financial Crisis small government lost some of its lustre but there is a lingering reluctance among the political class to campaign on redistributing wealth and intervening in markets on behalf of all citizens.

“While to an old eye, it simply looks like we have modern forms of the regulation of the olden days, to the general public it appears that the banks have simply been allowed to get away with whatever they want,” Tingle commented.

“This has had a knock-on effect, of course, to the standing of regulators and the public sector in general.”

Another former head of the APS and former IPAA national president, Terry Moran, who now chairs the Centre for Policy Development, believes the pendulum has swung back and the public wants more interventionist government.

Tingle thinks this is the way the wind is blowing, too. Government intervention gives political leaders something active to do and a way to build support in the electorate, she suggested.


Troubling times

Shergold is worried these are “troubling times” for liberal democratic rights and values, as people increasingly “curate their own world-view” online and avoid “civil public discourse and argument” while conspiracy theories flourish and expert opinion is increasingly given equal weight as the views of celebrities.

The University of Western Sydney chancellor and former head of the Australian Public Service said technologies like robotic automation and artificial intelligence were “undermining many of the professional skills that have given experts their authority” and this was also affecting the experts employed in the public sector.

He is alarmed at how many young people are now open to more authoritarian systems of government (perhaps the rise of Communist memes is cause for concern).

“A sizable proportion of Australians now believe, in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable to a democratic one,” Shergold said, quoting Lowy Institute data. “That’s a view held by 20% of Australians today but worryingly, it’s held by 33% of those who are aged 18 to 29.”

Social media is a double-edged sword, he added. It enlivens democracy on one hand, but helps authoritarian governments maintain their grip on power on the other; they can control internet access, easily monitor opponents or protesters, and “use big data analytics … to identify people’s political leanings and to exploit them”.

Citizens of freedom-loving democratic states see their leaders bogged down in political point-scoring and internecine battles, while the opposing parties deliver fairly similar and often equally disappointing results in government. They replace and rebuild policies and programs in ways that seem counter-productive or superficial and those who run for office seem to have little regard for the values of liberal democracy Shergold holds dear.

What better place to discuss such things, asked Tiernan, than in the Great Hall of the national parliament? “The current one seems to be doing its best to further undermine public trust and confidence in institutions and processes [more] than any for some time,” she quipped.

Acknowledging Shergold’s fears of young people losing faith in democracy, she said millennials were “rightly concerned” about real issues like the decline of job security and the rising cost of housing. If going to university also gets more expensive, she added, climbing “the ladder of opportunity” gets even harder.

Against all this “polarisation and fragmentation” Tiernan says the public service should concentrate on giving voice to the “disengaged and disaffected communities” and acting as stewards of the long-term public interest.

“I don’t know, I’m not necessarily persuaded that the public service can claim to act independently, fairly, impartially and with integrity, for everyone,” she said. “I don’t know that that’s true. I don’t doubt that it’s the aspiration, but I don’t actually know that it’s true.”

Cause for optimism in place-based governance

Tiernan remains optimistic, however, “because we now have an opportunity to understand and draw the right conclusions” from the democratic “malaise” that is reflected in the Australian Election Study and the oft-quoted Trust Barometer.

“I think that platform for trust and rebuilding is local, and I think it’s through place, and I think it’s through local service delivery systems, where people are part of the communities they serve, and where they continue to be distrusted,” she said.

“I also think that an increasing rediscovery of something we’ve known for a long time about the dynamic and spatial dimensions of policy problems, taken together with this concern that national elites lack awareness and understanding of local issues, are giving rise to demands for devolution and local control.”

Peter Shergold.

Tiernan suspects that “working together in a context that’s going to recognise trust, social cohesion and future prosperity, collaboration, knowledge sharing and co-creation for better, more effective and creative public policies that have people and communities at the centre” will require a very different way of working.

“And I don’t know that our current repertoires are lending themselves to that,” she said, reiterating that the current political environment doesn’t allow this.

She says citizens, service providers, policy advisers, researchers, educators and analysts need to see themselves as a “network of policy entrepreneurs and change agents” who will create new place-based governance institutions using their “ability and willingness to work together, within and outside of government, and with citizens and partners in all sectors”.

Shergold’s prior conclusion was that “the extraordinarily difficult vocation … of Westminster style public service” is more important than ever. “To me it seems it’s a bastion for institutional hope that diminishing public capacity can be countered,” he told the IPAA conference delegates.

He said the necessary traits of public administrators were “to be able to think and to argue and to listen to alternative views in a civil way, with integrity and courtesy, and yes, with interest” as well as being apolitical.

“It seems to me that public administration is the last vocation that extols the value in seeing both sides of a political argument, and in seeing a virtue in negotiating compromise,” an optimistic Peter Shergold said.

He also thinks political leaders can go back to basics and build a long-term political narrative, stick to their guns and marshal support to achieve long-lasting reform, winning back public trust in government institutions at the same time, as former New Zealand prime minister John Key had earlier claimed to have done in his Garran Oration.

Tiernan responded that she would trade five — no, 10! — current federal ministers for Key, and she’d be happy to see Australia adopt the “highly consensual” NZ electoral system too.

But she believes “the bloodsport of Australian politics, which is actually played by a lot less talented people than in the past” has become so combative that it is inhibiting the ability of public servants to truly serve the public fairly and stand up for the nation’s long-term interests, and she doesn’t expect we’re going to change anytime soon.

Videos of the IPAA national conference sessions are available online from IPAA ACT Division.

About the author
Premium

The essential resource for effective public sector leaders

Can you afford to miss the next briefing from Mandarin Premium? Sign up today.

Get Premium Today