Opinion

Public Trust in Government Institutions

Australia's former Public Service Commissioner offers insights on maintaining the people's trust in the public sector

Date Posted

31 Dec 2016

Issue

Issue 16, 14 Dec 2016

Of one thing we can be certain: although the world in twenty five or fifty years may well be very different to our current experience of it, the need for effective government underpinned by public trust in our major institutions is unlikely to be any less an imperative — and may well be a greater one.


Without trust in public institutions and government decision-making, proponents of welfare-enhancing reforms may not be given the time to explore the case for beneficial changes.

I say that for two reasons. First, the rapid growth in the vehicles available to the noisy — to quickly reach large audiences and oppose change they fear will disadvantage them — is unlikely to dissipate. Second, demand is growing for governments to take explicit account of individual circumstances in designing policy interventions, which challenges established concepts of equity. It often takes time for the potential beneficiaries of change to appreciate the expanded opportunities available to them; it can also take many years before empirical evidence shows whether policies that treat individuals differently are fair and effective. Without trust in public institutions and government decision-making, proponents of welfare-enhancing reforms may not be given the time to conduct the public discourse necessary to explore the case for beneficial changes.

All public services must continuously reinvent themselves: to ensure they properly understand the contemporary needs of the community they serve and to ensure they invest in the capabilities needed to address them. These capabilities include: policy development and program design that are informed by evidence, quality analysis and imagination; meaningful consultation; professional relationships with community groups and creative thinkers; and effective programme delivery. A fundamental trait without which public trust will erode, however, is a values-driven, ethical public service culture. Ethical conduct transcends complying with the law. It requires continuously doing the right thing, even if at some cost to individual public servants. Culture relates to more than rules and guidelines: it refers to how an organisation operates even when no one is watching!


Trust will be higher when public servants are seen to be willingly accountable, transparent in their dealings, and open in acknowledging and remedying mistakes or misjudgements.

There are many dimensions to this issue. I make six of many possible points: First, communities are very diverse. The needs of different groups often diverge. However, those with legitimate concerns that they may be disadvantaged by a proposal may be assuaged if they are confident that their concerns have been fairly weighed and judged impartially and that the case for change is persuasive.

The growing ubiquity of data coupled with access to sophisticated analytical tools has increased the capacity of groups and individuals to challenge public policy. This is unlikely to diminish in coming decades. There is no monopoly on wisdom. Public acceptance of change will be stronger when public consultation and engagement has been effective and the public service is seen to be open-minded, professional and characterised by good analysis, balanced judgment and quality evidence. Perceptions will also be enhanced when the public service is both highly qualified and broadly reflective of the community that it serves.

Public servants and ministers frequently exercise coercive powers of the state. This concept is broader than powers to arrest. For example, they collect taxes and spend the proceeds, possibly not to the benefit of all who paid tax. Decisions about approaches to regulation and service delivery can impose significant costs or confer benefits. Communities more willingly acquiesce if they believe that such decisions are well based and that government and their advisers apply society’s resources wisely, fairly and well, minimising the costs incurred. Societies that doubt their government’s ability to achieve high levels of efficiency, equity and relevance may begin to regard regulatory compliance and taxation as optional activities.

Second, our communities constantly change, including in response to global trends and influences. The public’s trust is likely to be lessened if they perceive that the public service is inward or backward looking and change resistant. A demonstrable focus on reinvention and repositioning to meet contemporary needs, even if personally unsettling to public servants, is both right and trust-inducing. A public servant might be reluctant to declare that a programme they designed is not working and needs surgery. Similarly it may be challenging to acquire new skills or end public activities if more appropriate delivery models are now available. Yet these are the right things to do if circumstances warrant it.

Third, ethical conduct requires that each individual be treated with courtesy and respect and their claims assessed fairly under the law. This applies whether the assessment relates to an individual’s liability to pay tax, their compliance with the regulatory regime or their claim for government support (no matter how delivered). Many government services have traditionally been designed as entitlements. Access to them is conferred by meeting explicit criteria and there is little role for judgement on the part of those tasked to assess an individual’s entitlement. However, government intervention may become more discretionary and personalised in future. This will increase the need for more transparency, greater accountability of decision makers, as well as professionally conducted and reported evaluation to demonstrate that individuals or groups have been treated equitably, even if unequally to start with.


The growing ubiquity of data coupled with access to sophisticated analytical tools has increased the capacity of groups and individuals to challenge public policy.

Fourth, trust will be higher when public servants are seen to be willingly accountable, transparent in their dealings, and open in acknowledging and remedying mistakes or misjudgements. If anything, demands are growing for clear and more personal accountability within public institutions. In some countries, there is criticism that the roles, responsibilities and personal accountabilities of individual public servants are too diffuse, leading to ineffective governance and poor responses when errors occur. There are particular dilemmas to be addressed in a public sector context. For instance, transparency and accountability have implications when most discussions between Ministers and their advisers are confidential in nature. There are political overtones to acknowledging a mistake in an adversarial political system. The importance attached to broad consultation within government could risk associated dangers such as “group think” and “decision by committee”. Yet it is unlikely that the need to resolve such pressures will abate into the future; indeed social media may well force a suboptimal response unless this issue is addressed early.

Fifth, the relationship between the public service and the government of the day needs to be clearly articulated and generally accepted. Australia’s tradition derives from Westminster. Historically, a change of government led to minimal change in the most senior ranks of the public service, which by convention had to be seen to be (and to practise) strict political neutrality. Effective public servants understand the nature of politics and how to build constituencies for change. However, they would undermine trust in them by the public and other political parties were they to appear to act in a party political way. There are other traditions. The Washington model, for example, includes very significant change in the senior ranks of the US civil service whenever the Administration (or even the Minister) changes. What matters is that the rules are clear, well understood by all, and obeyed.


Governments expect public servants to respond to their agenda; the community expects the public service to focus on their needs. Getting this balance right requires tact and good judgement.

Sixth, trust by government in the professionalism of the public service will be reduced if the service is seen as entirely passive — an ideas-free zone. Governments look to their public service advisers to help them devise and articulate a policy agenda that reflects contemporary needs and evidence about what works or presents the most prospective response. While governments also expect public servants to respond to their agenda and their understanding of community, the community expects that the public service’s contributions will focus on community needs and how to meet them, not on what will advance the government’s political interests. Yet persuasively pursuing good, relevant public policy could reasonably be expected to have that effect as a by-product. At times getting this balance right requires tact and good judgement on all sides. Within government, it also requires that both parties are open-minded, willing to explore ideas and to appreciate the value of honest, even at times, robust debate. These imperatives are likely to become even more important in future as politics increasingly becomes more localised, more pervasive, more personal and possibly more unpredictable.

At times, correctly steering a course between issues such as these can be difficult. As is so often true, leadership is key to equipping individual public servants to deal with possibly confusing and competing pressures. Leaders should set the tone within an organisation; and it is leaders who must consistently call out bad or unethical behaviour (and model good behaviour) — unwillingness to promote and articulate ethical behaviour could lead to a slow but growing erosion of standards. In Australia, analyses of lapses in good practice over the past decade or so has often identified insufficient management attention or courage in insisting on good behaviour in respect of “little things” as significant contributing factors. And from little things, bigger things grew…


Effective public servants understand the nature of politics and how to build constituencies for change.

In short, although the future is uncertain, the importance of maintaining high levels of trust in public institutions and the public service is unlikely to become any less important. Key to this is a professional, outward looking, adaptable and ethical public service. Achieving this is a major responsibility of public service leaders at all levels.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Sedgwick was the Australian Public Service Commissioner from 2009 to 2014, and has served as secretary of various Departments in the Australian Public Service.


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