Global Government Summit report; part 3

By on 31/05/2017 | Updated on 08/10/2019
Nadine Smith, global director of marketing and communications, Centre for Public Impact

Around the world, populations are increasingly cynical and suspicious about their elected leaders. At this year’s Global Government Summit, top officials from 11 countries debated how to re-engage people with democratic systems and public bodies

“There’s a decline in trust in government – that much we know,” said Nadine Smith. She didn’t need to spell out the implications for this audience: senior officials everywhere find that populations are increasingly responding to both politicians and policies with cynicism, disillusion and open disbelief. In the short term, this makes it difficult for governments to deliver policies and services collaboratively and effectively; and over the years, this growing scepticism feeds into the anti-establishment feelings that lie behind political upsets such as the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election.

Smith is the Global Director of Marketing and Communications at the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), an international foundation backed by consultancy BCG – and the knowledge partner of this year’s Global Government Summit. The CPI has been researching trust along with its relationship to legitimacy and, ultimately, impact. But before setting out its findings, she wanted to get the delegates’ views. Why is trust declining?

High expectations, dashed

The failure of some governments to keep their promises badly damages trust, said one delegate. Another noted that the growth of social media – and the increasing desperation of struggling mainstream press outlets – means that any perceived failure on the part of government is instantly met with a deluge of online outrage. And these two factors are closely linked to a third challenge: the fact that populations, though cynical about governments’ ability to deliver, still expect them to solve big problems – so politicians are often tempted to promise results that may be beyond their reach. “People are asking governments to do more and more difficult things, which are quite often not within their control,” said one delegate – citing the expectations that governments should be able to reduce obesity levels or stamp out online bullying.

All too often, delegates suggested, politicians are tempted by public pressure and the prospect of electoral advantage into making promises that can’t be kept – prompting an online scourging by angry social media users, and a further decline in trust in government.

KONG Sophy, director general, General Department of Civil Service Policy, Ministry of Civil Service, Cambodia

Even in the developing world, public expectations are rising fast. “To begin with, people just wanted peace and security,” commented Kong Sophy, Director General of Cambodia’s General Department of the Civil Service. “But when we have peace, people focus on education and health & safety standards and transport. The needs of the people increase from one day to the next.”

A formula for rebuilding trust

To retain or regain people’s trust, said Harriet Loos – a Senior Research Associate at CPI – governments must succeed in creating the impacts desired by their populations. And to achieve this, they must master three fields known by CPI as the ‘public impact fundamentals’: policy, action, and legitimacy.

Of these, she explained, policy means applying expertise, evidence and design skills to create the right strategy; action means delivering that strategy successfully, with good management and results measurement; and legitimacy means widespread public recognition that the government has the right to deliver its strategy. “All three are mutually reinforcing and need to exist simultaneously,” she added. “It’s not a matter of doing the policy, doing the action and then tagging on legitimacy at the end; it’s about building all three into the system.”

The delegates appeared to like the model – but several pointed out that of these three characteristics, legitimacy is often edged out of the limelight. “Most of the conversations in government are on turning policy into action: a deliverability issue and an implementation issue, as opposed to the legitimacy issue,” observed John Manzoni, the UK’s Chief Executive of the Civil Service. “It’s a very interesting conversation; it’s just not very live.” Absolutely, responded Smith: “It’s our hypothesis that legitimacy is still the least understood and well-embedded of these.” Most conversations focus on policy or action, she added; yet legitimacy, which encompasses trust, is just as essential to creating a positive impact.

John Manzoni, chief executive, Civil Service, UK

“And the implicit assumption is that while trust and legitimacy take a long time to build, they can be lost in an instant,” commented Peter Ong, Head of the Civil Service of Singapore. Smith agreed: “It’s the hardest thing to get and the quickest thing to go – and when it goes, it can be a catalyst for crisis across everything else that you’re doing.”

The tactics of trust

Moving from the theoretical to the practical, the delegates discussed the tools and practices that can be used to strengthen trust in government. Tackling corruption is one obvious answer, said a delegate. Ministers must keep their promises, commented another; and that means avoiding making promises that may prove hard to keep. But they must also make the right promises, said a third: headline targets must be carefully designed, ensuring that fulfilling their criteria will meet citizens’ interests and address their concerns. “We delivered X number of schools and X number of hospitals, and it’s really not improved education or health outcomes,” the speaker commented. “The lesson is to spend a vast proportion of your time on getting the outcome measures right.”

Communication is crucial to this relationship; and Vincent Chin, Senior Partner and Global Leader of BCG’s Public Sector Practice, highlighted a Paraguayan plan to feed information back to individuals on how the government is working to meet their needs. “If what really matters to you is education and transport, you’d tell the government that – and it would communicate back to say: ‘These are the things we’re doing on those two points’,” he said. “Technology makes it possible to address the interests of particular individuals.”

Governments find it hard to retain this focus on the interests and needs of citizens, another delegate argued, because civil servants spend too much time trying to predict and meet ministers’ priorities. “If you’re not careful, as a leader in the public sector, one finds oneself looking upwards all the time,” he commented. “If the leadership of a big organisation starts looking upwards too much, pretty soon you’ve got the entire organisation looking upwards. And that’s where the delivery problem starts, because organisations can never deliver anything if they’re always looking upwards.”

Senior civil servants, the delegate argued, need to take a stronger line on defining how policies are delivered: “I believe that the top of the civil service needs to be much, much more robust than we have been; it’s very easy to get into the habit of serving upwards and not having enough leadership and confidence of our own,” he continued. “In the end, to get implementation and delivery done, that is the domain of experience. The politicians can tell you the what, but the civil service absolutely needs to own the how – and I don’t think they do today.”

Vincent Chin, senior partner and global leader, Public Sector Practice, The Boston Consulting Group

Does transparency bring clarity?

One approach touted as a way to restore trust in public authorities is that of ‘open government’: the principle of publishing as much information as possible on decision-making process and operations, thus both providing transparency and explaining how decisions have been made.

New Zealand is introducing an open government policy, the country’s Head of State Services Peter Hughes explained: officials will “consistently and proactively release key government decision-making documents, publishing them on websites on a regular basis.” The “free and frank” advice given by civil servants to ministers will not be included, he explained – but the government believes that publishing cabinet papers and other documents associated with the final decision-making process will build public confidence in the final decisions.

“The power of routinising things is quite profound,” he commented, adding that when documents are “dragged out of government through the Official Information Act”, media coverage is often sensationalist. “But if you put them up on a website on a regular basis, no-one’s much interested!”

Other delegates, however, raised concerns about the plan. It can lead to officials avoiding creating a written paper-trail, said one – “so advice is not frank and comprehensive; it is sanitised. And difficult issues are dealt with orally rather than in written briefings.” There is also, they continued, little evidence that publishing this material increases trust in government.

The CPI’s Loos backed the principle of open government, but urged caution about its impact on public perceptions. “The goals of the open government movement start way too high,” she argued. “It’s not going to provide the sort of lift that fixes the trust problem – but it’s obviously still a part of the solution.”

The important thing, commented Lord O’Donnell – former Cabinet Secretary of the UK government – is to provide information in a format that’s useful and relevant to readers: “If you genuinely want the public involved, you’d have to think quite carefully about how you provide information in a way that people can use.”

The three C’s

Peter Ong, Singapore’s Head of Civil Service, had a pithy approach to building trust in government. “In a very simple equation, trust equals competence plus character plus connectedness,” he said.

Of these, he explained, competence is about “performance legitimacy”: the people’s belief in their government’s ability to deliver outcomes. Character is about “integrity and values”: public confidence that “you’re doing this in their interest, rather than your own”. And connectedness is about having “a relationship with citizens – through engagement, co-participation. If you don’t have that relationship, you seem very distant.”

To meet the public’s expectations on ‘competence’, CPI’s Smith would add, it’s helpful to have clear, relevant impact goals and realistic, public success metrics. “Everyone wants good outcomes; but if you can say how far along that journey you are, then you can begin a more grown-up conversation about the barriers to achieving your goals and why those problems remain,” she said. “It’s not always easy to work these things out in public ¬– but I think you’ll be surprised how understanding people can be”.

This is part 3 of our report on the 2017 Global Government Summit, held in Singapore earlier this year. You can read part 1 of our report here, covering the challenges of managing today’s skewed, fast-changing global economy. Part 2 is available here, examining how governments can preserve community cohesion in diverse societies. In part 4, we’ll examine how countries have worked to coordinate and align the work of the many arms of government. The full report is available here

What brought you here?

Heiki Loot, State Secretary, Estonia

“In your own country you’re on your own – you’re the only one doing the job of head of the centre of government. This is a unique opportunity to meet your counterparts who are doing a similar job in their own countries.

“And there’s another reason. This meeting is atypical in that there’s a frank and open discussion; it’s an open and intimate environment to express freely how you see things in your country, and to learn from your colleagues.”

John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service, UK

“There’s a lot to learn from each other, because many administrations are raising the same issues. We’re all struggling with how you become more efficient, and then there’s these big policy issues. We can share, we can learn, and we can take some things back; and civil services don’t do this very often.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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