In Brief | Public Trust

Trust relationships are often clustered into two broad categories - interpersonal trust and public trust. Public trust is generated when citizens appraise public institutions and/or the government and individual politcal leaders as promise-keeping, efficient, fair, honest. The following resources will introduce you to trust in the public sector. 

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Trust is a social, economic, and political binding agent. A vast research literature on trust and “social capital” documents the connections between trust and personal happiness, well-being, collective problem solving, economic development and social cohesion. Public trustworthiness is highly subjective and is driven by performance against expectation, efficiency of service delivery, fairness of decisions and actions and perceptions of honesty. Public trustworthiness is highly subjective and is driven by performance against expectation, efficiency of service delivery, fairness of decisions and actions and perceptions of honesty.

Public trust has been falling in developed countries for some time. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found the largest ever global drop in trust across government, business, media, and NGOs. Read President and CEO Richard Edelman’s speech to the National Press Club (US) for more on the 2017 results. In Australia, Edelman found that trust in government declined 8% from 2016, with 59% of Australians believing the system is not working and growing numbers of Australians support a new politics that ensures greater political accountability, open and devolved government and consensual decision-making in the national interest.

Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently claimed that trust in politics is worst among middle-income Australians. During the 2019 Federal Election period, he described the public sector as central to addressing this through service delivery for “quiet Australians” who are not represented in the “Canberra bubble”. For more on these trends see a 2019 collection of essays, edited by Mark Evans and Michelle Grattan, entitled  From Turnbull to Morrison: understanding the trust divide.

In 2016, the Canberra Times reported on the results of a Museum of Australian Democracy survey which supported Edelman, finding that Australians’ trust in government and politicians is at its lowest levels since 1993. The IPAA website has PowerPoint presentations from a June 2016 IPAA ACT panel discussion on the results with Edwin Lau, Head of the Public Sector Reform Division, OECD  and Professor Mark Evans (IGPA). Tom Burton in The Mandarin attributes some of that decline to ‘the shenanigans and too often infantile games of the political class’ but says that it would be wrong to blame that noise for the collapse in citizen trust in government. Public trust also requires ‘public confidence’ that governments deliver the services they need at the quality level they expect. 

In late 2019, the Australian National University's Election Study reiterated the delclining levels of public trust,  finding just 59 per cent of people are satisfied with how democracy is working.That's down from the record high of 86 per cent in 2007, slightly below the historic low of 56 per cent in the years after Gough Whitlam's dismissal. See the full report here. The Conversation website reports on the study here while an ABC website article can be found at this link.

Trust underpins the wider economic and social systems of a country – for instance, Fran Tonkiss from the Centre for European Policy  found that citizen perceptions of economic conditions influence their appraisal of government performance. A recent article by Craig Emerson in the Australian Financial Review concluded that economic reform is much harder when citizens don’t trust the competence of government and its institutions. National Public Radio in the US has a podcast on how the Chinese government is turning this idea around and putting the ‘trust’ onus on citizens to celebrate “virtuous behaviour amongst its citizens.

In a keynote address to Victoria’s Public Service Week in August 2017, Public Service Chief Chris Eccles told the audience that citizens are more educated, more discerning and more demanding about openness, transparency, accountability and involvement – they want input and more tailored responses from government if trust is to be maintained/improved.  Chris also wrote a chapter on restoring public trust in a 2015 book from ANU Press: New Accountabilities, New Challenges. This growing awareness coincides with the rise of misinformation or “post-truth”, particularly in the online world and contributes to the general decline in trust in governments and institutions. The University of Sydney has put together a Post Truth Initiative series which examines “post truth” from a range of perspectives, many of which have podcasts.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) has recently launched a citizen trust initiative which aims to rebuild public trust in government. Their web page contains a large amount of information about the multifaceted and complex sources of distrust and suggested solutions, including their September 2017 report Trust: the Fight to Win it Back. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has developed Australia’s first Open Government National Action Plan which includes a commitment to “building and maintaining public trust to address concerns about data sharing”, including effective communication. For more on government communication and trust see The Leaders’ Report: Government Communications by WPP.

IPAA’s National Conference in November 2017 focused on how to think differently and build trust. This buildt on the ‘Thinking Big’ theme of the IPAA 2016 ACT Conference where then IPAA ACT President and DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson spoke about how listening to citizens and changing tack accordingly can arrest the decline in public trust. Read The Mandarin’s article on Frances’s remarks here and a transcript of the ‘Thinking Big’ panel discussion here.

See APS Review Chair David Thodey's Keynote Address to the 2018 IPAA ACT Conference here. In his speech Thodey says that, in serving others, trust is a foundation stone for good work. It is vital to government, but also underpins doing things differently." He quotes Rachel Botsman who calls trust ‘the conduit that enables new ideas to travel’ and the ‘social glue between the known and the unknown’ and notes that it is hard to forge a new path without it.

Pia Waugh dissected recent recommendations for renewing public trust in government from the APS Review in October 2019. These recommendations were:

  • to ensure that programs and services meet the needs and aspirations of the citizenry, the APS should embed a culture of authentic, early, regular and open citizen engagement to drive policy development.
  • to counteract truth decay and communicate effectively with the citizenry, the APS needs to engage in public policy debate to justify actions, explain policy and present evidence in an honest and reliable way.
  • to improve civic and whole of government understanding of public policy decision making, a public right-to-know guarantee should be provided through an open government information framework (subject to normal exemptions).

Finally, for a little bit of fun, here an interactive guide to the game theory of how and why we trust each other. Game theory shows that we need repeat interactions, possible win-wins, and clear communication.


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