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The public service warms to renewal

If the proceedings of the 2017 IPAA Conference Thinking Differently Building Trust are broadly representative of the current mood of the Australian Public Service then we may have reached a tipping point in Australian public administration. There is a distinct sense of the need for renewal occurring; a recognition that this is a time for change tempered by acceptance that there is still much to do to break through the cultural barriers, do public service production differently and reconnect with Australian citizens.

This is perhaps unsurprising given the gravity of the evidence on display. As the Institute for Governance’s Power of Us survey demonstrates, there is compelling evidence of the increasing disconnect between government and citizen reflected in a decade of decline of democratic satisfaction (from 85.6% in 2007 to 42% in 2017), declining trust in politicians, political parties and other key political institutions (only 5% exhibit strong confidence) and lack of public confidence in the capacity of governments (of whatever colour) to address public policy concerns. Only half of Australians are “very confident” or “somewhat confident” in the ability of government to perform its core tasks.

These trends are in keeping with the international evidence. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that trust in government has further declined around the world. Government is now distrusted in 75% of countries. But what is peculiar about the Australian case is that it has occurred in the wake of 25 years of economic growth.

In the Great Hall at Parliament House on November 15 last year, 500 IPAA conference delegates held three conversations with leaders from across the public and private sectors and academia. The conference considered how the decline of trust and deference to the political class is impacting the public service, evaluated different perspectives on how trust is nurtured, maintained or lost, and, deliberated on what needs to change. So what did we learn?

The trust deficit and the Australian public service

Political trust is commonly viewed to be a relational concept about keeping promises and agreements. It involves combining integrity in practice with accountability for delivery; a form of social contract (Hethrington, 2005). As the Dean of ANZSOG Ken Smith put it, trust is integral to social progress, it is “the glue that holds together a society or organisation”. For our speakers, there are at least five main reasons why a lack of political trust may be problematic for the APS.

First, as the National IPAA President Peter Shergold observes, the disconnection of government from citizen and citizen from government is potentially a major source of social and political instability even more so when it has emerged, in contrast to New Zealand or the United Kingdom, in times of affluence. This observation is in keeping with the majority of our conference delegates (55%) who believe that political partisanship and instability is the most significant factor affecting trust in the government and the public service.

Second, lack of trust undermines political engagement. Aaron Martin’s pioneering work in Australia shows that lack of trust impacts on levels of confidence in democracy, willingness to vote and political engagement.

Third, lack of trust makes the general business of government much harder to deliver. Research demonstrates that declining trust has had important effects on undermining liberal domestic policy ambitions. Put simply, people need to trust the government to support more government (see Marien and Hooghe, 2011). Most of our presenters spoke about the messiness of politics and the complexity of doing policy in times of mistrust.

Fourth, lack of political trust may make long-term policy problems less likely to be addressed. Politicians may also feel they lack the legitimacy necessary to request sacrifices from citizens of the kind often required to solve major policy problems.

Fifth, most citizens do not distinguish between political and bureaucratic actors; they just see government. The observation that most Australians dislike the adversarial nature of the politics that are played out in Parliament House is both a problem and an opportunity for the APS. It is a problem because Westminster traditions of “being seen and not heard” constrain the APS from speaking out in defence of bureaucracy as its reputation is attacked. It is an opportunity because the new consensus building politics that the majority of Australians seem to be looking for will provide much more stable conditions for solving public policy problems.

Future governance

So what are the ways forward? For our speakers this appeared to require combining the old with the new. It is the mix that matters.

A public service that engages in public reason

The first and most challenging prescription given the Westminster tradition, heightened contestation over what we mean by good policy and authentic evidence, and fake news is that the public service needs to engage in public reason and the power of persuasion. In short, it must engage in the public war of ideas to win the war of ideas. This could involve ongoing conversations with the citizenry and stakeholders, getting the media onside to celebrate success and heightened respect for the political literacy of the public.

A public service for humans

Secondly, we need an APS for humans and not for econocrats. Most of the public policy problems that we are confronting today require collaborative problem-solving with citizens and stakeholders. The days of only making policy on the basis of rational economic assumptions in a policy cycle is over. An APS for humans requires new methods of doing public service production that “enable” (e.g. remove barriers to citizen participation through digital enablers), “empower” (e.g. through co-design of projects, programmes and services), “engage” (e.g. working with and through community-based organisations and trusted intermediaries) and “mainstream” a culture of “seeing like a citizen”. This will involve broadening the APS’s range of policy tools to engage in authentic participatory governance through the co-design of policy and services with target groups of citizens and stakeholders, place based problem-solving and deliberative democracy.

It also requires the APS to appropriately embrace the opportunities afforded by digital change. Here the potential reform story is most developed in terms of the impact of user design and the use of accelerator methodologies for service redesign. It is less developed in terms of the digital democracy story where there are outstanding opportunities for integrating disaffected groups into policy and delivery processes.

Authentic collaborative governance

Thirdly, there is a need to move beyond a “top-down” Commonwealth government knows best approach to policy-making and broaden the axis of trust and policy learning beyond the usual suspects to encompass all jurisdictions of governance, the business and community sectors. This will require breaking down age old silos between policy and implementation, policy design and strategic communications, between government, business and community sectors and between jurisdictions. As Gill Callister (Secretary, Victorian Department of Education and Training) observes “…the public service is losing touch with the notion of delivery. It is losing touch with an understanding of the day-to-day experience of the frontline worker and the day-to-day experience of the people receiving those services”.

It is noteworthy that 61% of conference delegates thought that engaging directly with citizens through collaboration and co-design is the best way for public sector leaders to preserve trust in government and 39% believe that this requires the public service to communicate and engage better with citizens.

Towards a new public service?

As a parting shot, our conference speakers appeared confident in the adaptive capacity of the APS to meet the challenge of reconnecting with the citizenry. Partly, because there are an increasing range of successful examples of thinking and doing policy and service delivery differently here in Australia. From the use of stakeholder and citizen-driven accelerator methods in the National Innovation and Science Agenda and the Try, Test and Learn Fund in the Department of Social Services, the innovative use of artificial intelligence in the Department of Human Services, and the creative exploitation of Big Data in Data 61 to the use of co-design methods by the ACT government to combat various forms of social exclusion in Canberra.

We just need to remove the cultural barriers to innovation, capture the magic, spread the lessons, build capability and embed the practice.

As Callister affirms, “one of the most important things we can do is understanding how we actually value the perspective of delivery, and value the skills that it brings in understanding how you translate policy into practice; because there is no doubt we don’t spend enough time on how we implement good policy and what it means to people on the ground”.

Professor Mark Evans is the Director and Professor of Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra. Mark is also a council member of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) ACT Division, which hosted the Thinking Differently Building Trust conference.

Author Bio

Mark Evans

Mark Evans is the Director and Professor of Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.