How to restore public trust in government

Each and every one of us in public office or public service has a fundamental responsibility: to operate in the public interest. Identifying and striving to serve the public interest is the most important thing we can do.

Time and time again, surveys tell us that people are losing faith in democracy and our major institutions.

Data from the Australian Constitutional Values Survey, shows that trust in the federal government has plummeted from almost 82% to 49% in the last decade, while trust in state and local governments have remained stable, but still only just above 50%.

How can this be turned around, and how much is the responsibility of public servants operating outside the political realm?

One is through a greater commitment to integrity, transparency and proper process, and the second by ensuring the public sector spends more time genuinely listening to and engaging with the citizens it serves.

The public will not tolerate a culture that sees political and public sector leaders immune from consequences for behaviour that is clearly unacceptable to the public. Integrity consists of more than just obeying the letter of the law: it includes a commitment to acting in the public interest at all times.

The best practical way to lift an organisation’s integrity is to insist on good process. Integrity comes from the standards of behaviours and professionalism you expect and demand from yourself and your staff. Good process can ensure these elements are understood and delivered.

These routines help with the fundamental question of coordination across agencies. And effective and successful government requires coordination across three domains: the political, the policy and the administrative. Coordination, in turn, is reliant on good process, with a solid dash of good trusting relationships thrown in.

In his book, How to run a government so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy, Sir Michael Barber uses the analogy of an iceberg: policy is just the tip, only 10 per cent of the puzzle in producing good outcomes. In other words, process is what sunk the Titanic: the hidden 90 per cent of the iceberg that makes everything possible— or not possible.

At its heart, the proper functioning of government is about better outcomes for citizens. Good process and well implemented routines help to drive these outcomes, and will also act to increase public trust in our institutions.

These issues are of increased importance in the current climate, where lack of trust in key institutions feeds the rise of populist, anti-pluralist movements.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said in 2007 that the real dividing line in politics had moved from the traditional positions of right versus left to “what I would call the modern choice, which is open versus closed.”

Institutions have a choice: to open their arms and heart to the world, or to decide to be closed off to insights and people from elsewhere.

While good process is important as a way of stemming declining public trust, relying on process alone is not enough. It can encourage an internal focus, and so risks being perceived as too bureaucratic. Good process must extend to active engagement with the citizenry.

Public institutions need to listen. Listen, think and, only then, act. A willingness to listen and deliberate is not something that comes easily. Our politicians and those supporting them are far better at providing the perception of engagement than offering the real thing.

Without the ability to talk more openly about our shared problems, and to have those representing the public interest hear these conversations, we will not be able to solve them.

A change of approach is vital because year after year, surveys like the Australian Constitutional Values Surveyhave reiterated the need for such a change. They document falling trust in our parliaments, our politicians, our public servants, and even democracy.

The risk is that we take the strength of our government institutions for granted, as politicians and public servants and public alike all opportunistically press for their small gains and little victories. We assume that because they have saved us in the past, they will do so in the future.

A clear focus on integrity and the public interest will help to gradually improve public trust. Everyone in the public sector has a vital role to play in restoring these basic principles.


Professor Ken Smith is CEO and Dean of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), and Enterprise Professor at The University of Melbourne. Ken served for more than three decades in the Queensland government, including as Director General of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet between 2007 and 2011.

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