A matter of trust: how public servants can restore faith in democracy

Painting of a hand and the telephone
  • Published Date: 18 March 2020

Trust is the glue that hold societies together and the lever that makes policy implementation possible. But public managers are faced with a challenging environment where trust in institutions and politicians is fading, at the same time demands on governments are increasing.

The Griffith Review issue, Matters of Trust, explored these issues, including the importance of trust between governors and governed, between citizens and between Australia’s First Peoples and their colonisers.

ANZSOG held a joint panel with the Griffith Review, chaired by its editor Ashley Hay, in Melbourne to discuss these issues and what steps that the public service could take to restore trust. The panel featured ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith and fellow Matters of Trust contributors, the Grattan Institute’s Dr Kate Griffiths and University of Melbourne Professor Sarah Maddison.

The panel agreed that public services had a role to play in fixing trust issues, but there was a need for greater integrity measures to improve accountability around government decision-making and the role of special interests.

Professor Maddison said that her work with the Indigenous unit at University of Melbourne was based on building trust.

“I have learned that, when the wheels fall off, trust between Indigenous people and colonisers can never be taken for granted - it is fragile and contingent,” she said.

She said that changing institutions to make them responsive to the needs of First Peoples required patience, like water working its way through stone.

Professor Smith said that the public service had a role in restoring trust because it had not seen the decline in trust that the political class had over the last ten years, a decline that was almost totally confined to the commonwealth government rather than state and local governments.

He said that improving accountability and integrity was key to rebuilding trust in government.

“Governments focus on talking about their performance, not their process or probity, even though these are equally important,” he said.

“The debate about how to make our system work better needs to be done hand-in-hand with what measures we take to restore accountability,” he said.

“We must push back against secrecy for the sake of it. For example, New Zealand releases cabinet documents after 30 days compared to our 20 years – and that has not compromised government in any way.”

Special interests versus the public interest

Ms Griffiths said that one of the big questions around trust was the issue of ‘who’s in the room’ when policy was decided.

“Is policy being decided for special interests or the general interest? On that question we are not doing as well as our peers. If the answer is special interests then that is damaging the implicit trust between government and citizens in Australia,” she said.

“The relationship between citizen and state is implicitly based on trust, because citizens are often excluded or passive participants when decisions are made.

“This is not just about politicians. Research shows that public servants spend more time with industry groups and other interests than they do with citizens.”

Ms Griffiths said that election spending should be limited to reduce the influence of special interests over governments, and caps should apply to political parties, individuals and other organisations.

Professor Smith said that public services were a great store of advice on good policy which was not being utilised by governments.

“They are being increasingly told that they are only there to do service delivery, and that policy will be decided by politicians. If the political parties are shrinking and becoming less representative, then who is there for the public?” he said.

“It cannot be the case that public servants are solely accountable to their elected minister, there is also an accountability to the public and to deliver good policy with integrity.

“When it comes to the bulk of public servants, police nurses teachers, etc – they never intersect with a minister – so who are they accountable to?”

Advice, transparency and open debate

Professor Smith said that when expertise conflicted with interest there was a tendency to ignore the provision of independent advice.

“Politicians are free to ignore expert advice, but they must be transparent about why and make that advice public,” he said.

He used the recent ‘sports rorts’ affair as an example saying that in this case the government should be required to: “make public the list of successful applicants, with reasons why, along with the unsuccessful applicants and reasons why.”

Professor Maddison said that politicians were too thin-skinned to have a genuine debate on why policy had failed with honest input from the people it had failed.

“I think the bushfires brought into stark relief that instead of having ten years of understanding that we were facing a crisis with everyone rowing in the same direction – we have had ten years of partisanship. There is no confidence in the political system or the institutions we have that they are up to the task,” she said.

Professor Smith said it was vital for a federal anti-corruption commission to be established, but this needed to be part of a broader shift towards a pro-integrity focus that lifted general standards across the public service.

“Public servants have an important stewardship role in terms of improving transparency, integrity, and engagement with citizens. This is not a distraction from the work of delivering on the policy reforms of any given government - it is an essential part of it.”