Australians’ trust in public services on the up

By on 23/08/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Stephanie Foster told fellow delegates at the 2019 Global Government Summit that there was "a massive difference between trust and satisfaction” in the 2018 Citizen Experience Survey

According to recently released statistics from Australia’s Citizen Experience Survey, in early 2019 just over a third of respondents trusted public services, while only a quarter believed that public bodies could “successfully implement changes to meet the needs of all Australians”. However, more recent statistics point to a major uptick in trust in government as a result of its response to the coronavirus crisis.

The Citizen Experience Survey polled 5,103 Australians in March 2019, as part of an ongoing project established by the former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) secretary Martin Parkinson – whom GGF interviewed last year. The aim of the survey was to better understand citizen attitudes and satisfaction with the public service.

Though trust in the country’s public services appears low, the findings of a more recent study by the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods suggest that trust in the federal government rose considerably as a result of the country’s quick response to the coronavirus crisis. Surveys conducted by the university found that trust in government fell to a low of 27% in January following the summer bushfires, but surged to 57% in April. It also found that overall confidence in the public service had risen to 65%.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how the Australian Public Service (APS) can quickly respond to a crisis to deliver essential services for Australians at a challenging time, including through implementing government initiatives effectively and rapidly redeploying staff across the APS to areas of highest need,” the PM&C said.

It is not yet known whether the second wave of coronavirus cases in Australia, prompting a return to lockdown restrictions in some cities and states, has had an effect on levels of trust and government and the services its provides.

COVID-19 and the reform agenda

A spokesperson told Guardian Australia, which obtained the statistics through a Freedom of Information request, that the 2019 results had informed the Thodey review of the civil service. The independent review – billed as the most significant review of the Australian Public Service in 40 years – culminated in a 385-page report published in December last year.

In an open letter published in March, Philip Gaetjens, PM&C secretary and head of the APS, and the country’s Public Service Commissioner, Peter Woolcott, drew comparisons between what the APS has proven it is capable of achieving during the current public health emergency, and what will be required of it in pursuing the reform agenda.

“Events like these demonstrate the importance of adaptability to how we meet future challenges,” Gaetjens and Woolcott wrote. “Now more than ever, the need for an agile and responsive public service is clear. As we continue to drive the reform agenda, the work that is currently being undertaken across the APS is already embracing the ethos behind it – an APS that works together to provide for Australians now and into the future.”

Disparity between trust and satisfaction

Stephanie Foster, deputy secretary for governance in the PM&C department, who sits on GGF’s Content Advisory Board, shared statistics from the previous year’s survey with fellow delegates at the 2019 Global Government Summit, during a session on public sector transformation.  

“Only about 32% of respondents said that they trust Australian public services,” she said. This closely mirrors the findings of the 2019 survey, in which 31% of respondents said they trusted public services.

“Interestingly, though, there was a 56% satisfaction rate with services, and 71% were satisfied with the professionalism of staff. So there was a massive difference between trust and satisfaction,” Foster added, referring to the 2018 survey results.  

Delay in publishing 2019 results

According to the Thodey review, the 2019 survey results were expected to be published in full in mid-2020. However, only the headline statistics have so far been released following Guardian Australia’s intervention.

PM&C said it would be “contrary to the public interest” to release raw data before it was “processed, cleaned, studied, analysed, interpreted and organised”.

A spokesperson for the department told Guardian Australia that since March 2019 it had conducted surveys of approximately 2,500 Australians every four months, the latest in June 2020. Relying on “independent advice”, the department said the survey “required at least 10,000 further respondents conducted at even periods to show more meaningful trends”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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