• Problems with trust really get worse as you move to national governments, and get better as you move to more regional and local governments
  • We need to rethink the identities and roles of the public service, particularly at the local level, says @KenSmithANZSOG
  • The buck does not stop with public servants – politicians, too, have a mandate to show the public that they're working for them.

An interview with ANZSOG’s Dean and CEO, Ken Smith

Trust in government is at an all-time low. Across the world, governments struggle to persuade their citizens they are working for their benefit, and many political leaders have adopted populism as the path of least resistance. The public doubt the legitimacy of their leaders, and leaders struggle to translate policy ideas into lasting, positive impact. It appears to mark the beginnings of a vicious cycle, and there is a pressing need to course-correct before distrust and antipathy become the new normal.

In Australia, declining levels of public trust in institutions are not helped by the “revolving door of prime ministers” phenomenon that has seen five new leaders in as many years, mostly as a result of internal coups. The recent overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull by members of his own party has created widespread concern that politicians appear to be pursuing power over policy. Australians wonder whether the “public good” ethos of government, an idealistic concept to begin with, is now completely dead. According to the Australian Constitutional Values Survey, the number of Australians who thought that democracy was functioning well fell by almost 15% between 2008 and 2014.

One of the loudest voices to call out this alarming trend has been that of Ken Smith, the dean and CEO of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Ken is intent on understanding the factors that drive distrust in government, and spends much of his time developing innovative ways to counter some of these worrying trends. Larry Kamener, the chair of CPI, and Sarah Novak, programme associate for CPI in Sydney, spoke with Ken to diagnose the situation and brainstorm what can be done about it.

 

Bringing the periphery to the centre

Australia is a huge – and hugely diverse – country. Drastically different geographic and social conditions across the nation, as well as the stratification of responsibilities across local, state, and Commonwealth (federal) governments, makes consistent and high-quality provision of public services particularly tricky. Ken argues that the policies issuing from Canberra, the nation’s capital, frequently “don’t integrate locally to meet the needs of a particular community, or recognise that the needs of a community on an island in the Torres Strait are very different from the needs of a community in western New South Wales or in north-west Western Australia”. The types of challenges facing governments at the local, state and national levels are quite different, and citizens’ interests are often met most effectively by local service providers.

The problem with trust in government seems to lie squarely with the federal level of government. “This decline in trust at a federal level is not matched by declines at state or local government level,” Ken explains. “Problems with trust really get worse as you move to national governments, and get better as you move to more regional and local governments.” Indeed, the European Commission’s 2018 public opinion survey confirms that this applies throughout the EU and also holds true for the United States. Citizens look at central government and see bureaucrats far removed from their own local circumstances – and in Australia, where people live in very varied conditions, it is crucial for policymaking to be based in local realities.

 

Subsidiarity is key

Yet locally-based solutions have not been the method of choice so far in Australian politics. “Ironically, there has been further centralisation of activities in Australia on issues that relate to local service delivery,” says Ken. “I think there is an issue, and we all know many stories, where in some of those smaller communities there can be more government programmes at a national or state level than there are people.”

So what’s the answer? Devolved government, or subsidiarity, explains Ken – “the importance of decision-making being made at a level close to people who are affected by it”. The historical background is important here because many states have carried out local government reforms that have only “looked at local government from an efficiency point of view. There has often been a backlash against those decisions – I know that this has happened in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.”

Going beyond efficiency means moving beyond targets set remotely at the federal level and instead encouraging more localised forms of governance and resource provision. “Improvements,” Ken adds, “will occur where there is greater subsidiarity, rather than the Commonwealth government necessarily providing, say, services directly to a remote indigenous community, or trying to manage from Canberra a range of programmatic services in a community.”

Ken identifies the crux of the challenge: ensuring that, in local government, “the governance capacity is properly skilled and resourced to be able to integrate the range of services that are provided to a community”. Ultimately, he argues, it is crucial that policies are driven by and tailored to the needs of the local community – to avoid the problem of service provision that completely misses the mark.

 

Reframing “public service”

If it is true that people tend to trust government that is closer to them – and Ken’s argument here appears to be backed up in the polls – the question becomes: how can we use that knowledge?

Ken points out that we need to rethink the identities and roles of the public service, particularly at the local level – not only in what they do but also in who qualifies as a public servant. “A large part of the public service is involved in service delivery, whether that’s within the schooling system, the health system, the police services, or the justice services… So there are a range of public servants who directly intersect with the public on a regular basis, as well as public servants who are involved in more arm’s length positions vis-à-vis the community.” This former group, “the majority in terms of numbers”, is already highly trusted. “People normally like the principal and teachers at their local school. They like the nursing and medical workforce and the Allied Health workforce in public hospitals. The police, the emergency and fire services: they all have a high degree of recognition in terms of service delivery and trust. It’s much more difficult at a national level or in a central agency in a state or territory, where you are quite divorced from day-to-day contact with the community.”

In other words, there is an exciting opportunity to reframe common conceptions of the public service. “It’s important to remind the community that there are a whole lot of people that they actually hold in high regard who are working in the sectors, and who work operationally on a day-to-day business independently of the political system but still within the policy frames defined by that system,” he adds.

 

Leading the charge

But the story doesn’t end there. He is adamant that public service employees could be much more active in building trust across the political spectrum through their unique apolitical position and public service ethos. Referring to Nikolas Kirby’s work on institutional integrity, Ken argues that public sector leaders need to lead the charge on establishing trust in government in a broad, cross-government fashion. “It’s important for people to see that institutions led by public service officials themselves have a high degree of integrity, and that leadership is concerned about delivering that institutional integrity and, through that, ensuring the integrity of individual public officers. One thing I think we can do is profile those [leaders] and how they have operated in a bipartisan way towards the government of the day and the community in the public interest.”

Empowerment is key. We need to empower our public sector leaders to be able to navigate the plethora of actors in the contemporary political arena – businesses, NGOs and think-tanks – to help develop “core skills around citizen centrality and curiosity” and initiatives “like public/private data sharing to improve outcomes within the community”. In other words, says Ken, we need “a strong, effective public service that can operate in an environment where there’s contestability of policy advice, where they can be strong and effective in terms of providing that policy advice but also flexible enough to understand that there is a lot of competitive advice that’s coming in from the think tanks, the private sector, and other areas.”

According to Ken, the buck does not stop with public servants – politicians, too, have a mandate to show the public that they are working for them. For Ken, this is not a tall order: there are many cases where the goals of the political realm and the public service can align. “There’s that old saying that good policy is good politics, and I think when governments act in the public interest rather than a sectional interest, you can get exceptional outcomes in public policy.”


 

To find out more about successful examples of strong citizen engagement at a local and city level in Australia, Ken recommends reading about the City of Melbourne’s planning initiative, Future Melbourne. “Most Australian states have also experimented with regional cabinet and in some cases regional parliaments in addition to highly focussed citizen engagement initiatives. These local and state initiatives can provide a broader focus on participation and engagement, thus building trust in the underlying institutions. It is much harder at a Federal level, given the scale and complexity of responsibilities.” You can also download the transcript of our interview with Ken Smith here.

 

FURTHER READING

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