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What Can Governments and Leaders Do When Trust Evaporates?

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This post originally appeared on The Conversation.

The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer points to an “evaporation of trust” in institutions and leaders worldwide. The annual survey finds a decline in trust overall, with more countries classified as distrusting than trusting.

Globally, trust in business, media and NGOs is at its lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis. While Australia is not yet among the 48 percent of countries regarded as distrusters, the public’s trust in government, business and the media has declined. Unusually, so has their trust in NGOs.

This survey was run late in 2014, well before the federal Liberal leadership crisis and the electoral backlash against the governing LNP in Queensland, Australia. But the February 3 Essential poll found just 27 percent of those surveyed agreed that Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who survived a leadership spill motion on Monday, was “trustworthy.”

What the Edelman survey highlights is a deeper malaise in the public’s faith in its core institutions and leaders.

One finding encapsulates the paradox of trust facing Australian governments and leaders – at all levels. The public has lost trust in government mainly because they do not believe that it “contributes to the greater good.” More than 50 percent do not believe that the government helps them to live a fulfilling and healthy life.

This would appear to provide government with an opportunity to act, to demonstrate it can support people in their desire to live better lives and to intervene where citizens lack confidence in business regulation. However, the lack of trust in government to act seems to match the lack of confidence in government’s capacity to act.

Rise of individualism erodes idea of public good

This paradox can be explained by transformative changes in state-society relations in many countries. Globalisation and the associated range of economic, technological, social and political developments have supported the rise of individualism.

People appear freer to access our own sources of expertise; to exercise choice in a range of services; to occupy multiple identities that reflect our various personal and professional interests; and to engage with others in temporary and often virtual networks for political and social purposes.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this has fractured the idea of a public interest or public good. One result is scepticism about the ability of large institutions to respond to people’s diverse needs and aspirations, so reducing their faith in government.

Underlying this change is a pervasive doubt about governments’ capacity to deal with the huge challenges of our time, such as climate change and inequality. The public has the uneasy feeling that, in a globalised, networked world, no-one is really in charge.

In response, the public is refocusing on family-like relationships, based on intimacy, familiarity and proximity. The Edelman findings suggest that in Australia family-owned businesses have a “trust premium” over state-owned firms or “big business.”

Among governments – at least those in “developed democracies” – the doubt generated by the failure of big government programs since the mid-20th century to transform societies prompted a shift to “evidence-based policymaking.” This included a preference for technical experts and arm’s-length governing organisations rather than political argument.

Consequently, governments face multiple dilemmas in their relations with citizens. As governments and public servants grow more modest in what they might be able to achieve, the public grows more demanding. As individuals, we want freedom to act in support of our desires but also want to feel secure.

As service users and customers, we want government to regulate private sector excesses but lack confidence in its capacity to do this. As voters, we want government to do more to support our well-being but won’t vote for it if it’s going to cost us anything.

Our quest for innovation requires trust

Recent public policy innovations provide evidence of these dilemmas and show clearly the importance of trust to innovation.

Public policy and services are increasingly delivered through innovative hybrid arrangements – public, private and non-governmental organisations working together. These can be simple, such as a contract between a public service organisation and a private or not-for-profit organisation to deliver a service. But they can also be very complex, comprising innovative organisational forms and/or legal and financial arrangements.

However, these partnership arrangements raise important questions. There are questions about the government’s identity. How can it be both a commissioner and a regulator of partnerships? What about transparency, particularly where commercial confidentiality denies the public access to data?

And there are questions about accountability. How can government hold providers to account when multiple partners are involved, all with some measure of responsibility?

The Internet is another area of collision between innovation and trust in government. The “Internet of everything” points to the value that can be created through the interconnections of people, objects, data and processes. From the personalisation of services to the management of cities and even ensuring access to water, advocates in business, government and the non-government sector are exploring the Internet’s innovative potential.

However, as Edelman’s data illustrates, citizens are growing distrustful. We wonder to what extent we are our own curators of information and knowledge. Who ultimately “owns” the Internet of everything? What do these developments mean for privacy?

What does rebuilding trust entail for government?

Work at the Melbourne School of Government suggests ways in which governments can create the conditions for rebuilding trust.

Government needs to lead open and transparent debate with all its communities about policy challenges and options. Expertise comes in many forms – technical, political, professional, lived and user expertise. All need to be included in policy debates, particularly in an era of budget constraint.

Innovation remains the holy grail in public service reform. Public servants continue to draw from non-governmental sectors in their efforts to improve services and outcomes. Trusted innovation relies, however, on accessible and transparent information to users, clear evidence of its operability and participation in development.

As governments contemplate operating more as enablers of policy and services rather than providers, it becomes hugely important to get the commissioning right. Commissioning is not just another form of contracting or procurement. It requires a comprehensive framework for decision-making and resource allocation.

Clear accountability relationships are essential to secure public trust in the process and outcomes. This suggests building accountability into the lifecycle of commissioning.

To rebuild trust in a changed environment, governments need to have the appropriate workforce in place. When trust in leaders – political and organisational – is declining, citizens and users look to others including frontline staff for trust signals.

In our work on the 21st-century public service workforce we identified that, in addition to the expected analytical, professional or technical expertise, much closer attention must be paid to developing a workforce with broader skills. These include commercial skills, design thinking and softer skills such as relationship building, communication, negotiation and brokering.

These skills will be essential for the depth of engagement public servants will be expected to have with external partners, citizens and communities.

Helen Sullivan is director of the Melbourne School of Government at University of Melbourne.

Image by Jason James.
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