Open, inclusive, transparent: rebuilding public trust in government

By on 15/08/2023 | Updated on 15/08/2023
Taimar Peterkop: “The challenges are growing, the resources are diminishing – and we need to talk about that.”

At the Global Government Summit in Singapore, civil service leaders from 16 countries met to explore five of the biggest challenges facing their countries – debating in their fifth session how to rebuild public trust and confidence in government. Here we present some of the contributions from the heads of Estonia’s and Singapore’s civil services

How to rebuild public trust in governments? At a time of widespread public disillusionment and suspicion, this is a key question for public and civil services. And at the Global Government Summit, the topic was addressed by Taimar Peterkop, secretary of state of Estonia – a country that in this field has both some particular challenges, and some unique strengths.

On the challenges side, Estonia still carries a legacy from Soviet occupation: until 1989 “the government was viewed as an enemy – so people still have that thought somewhere in there,” Peterkop explained. What’s more, about 25% of the population are Russian speakers: “A lot of them use Russian media, so it’s difficult to get our messages through to them,” he said. “Though during COVID, and now with the Ukrainian crisis, that has improved.”

One of Peterkop’s key messages was that public servants must try to support realistic conversations about what government can achieve and its role in the world: if people’s expectations are too high, government will always fail to meet them. Estonia’s civil service is shrinking as its population ages, he commented; but in the wake of the financial crisis and the pandemic, people have got used to activist, interventionalist government. “The challenges are growing, the resources are diminishing – and we need to talk about that,” he said. “We need people, civil society, enterprises to look after themselves, and not expect that government will hand out money to solve every crisis.”

Strengthening the foundations

Meanwhile, Estonia’s public servants work to build trust through “open, inclusive, transparent government,” said Peterkop – often utilising digital technologies. The country operates an open policy development platform, for example, publishing information on “everybody who is involved; all the inputs; who has inputted what; whether it has been approved or not”. Estonia also operates a “Big Brother reversed” policy on citizens’ personal data: every time a public servant accesses anybody’s data, that action is made visible to the individual – enabling them to challenge inappropriate use. “People shouldn’t be afraid of the government spying on them; they can spy on government,” he added.

The government runs a “strategic communications unit” to combat disinformation – identifying inaccurate information being spread by foreign actors, and coordinating communications responses across government. This has to be handled carefully, Peterkop explained: officials do not, for example, assess the accuracy of statements by Estonian politicians. “What we do is build knowledge in society: we brief journalists; we’ve founded courses in universities and schools on how to recognise fake news. The effort is there to have a resilient society.”

Public servants must, he argued, be ready to “explain what we’re really doing, to set the facts straight and fight closed thinking”. Officials cannot completely hold back the deluge of false and distorted information, he said, “but we should start, because otherwise we’ll lose out to the populists and those who are spreading misinformation.”

Character matters

Leo Yip: “People look at government – both the politicians, and the civil servants – through… the lens of character.”

As the event drew to a close Leo Yip, the head of Singapore’s civil service and host of the Global Government Summit, set out two key ways to maintain public confidence in government. “The baseline to building trust is competently delivering services to the people on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

“Secondly, I think people look at government – both the politicians, and the civil servants – through another lens: the lens of character. How do we come across? Can they believe us? Do they think our motivations are correctly placed? Do we have the character of integrity, and are we purpose-driven to serve them rather than being self-serving?”

Over time, Yip concluded, people “form a view of the character of a government and the character of its key members. And if that’s an issue, communication alone won’t go far towards addressing it”.

The Global Government Summit is a private event, providing a safe space at which civil service leaders can debate the challenges they face in common. We publish these reports to share some of their thinking with our readers, this year focusing in each report on the main messages of a single contributor. Note that, to ensure that participants feel able to speak freely at the Summit, we give all those quoted the right to anonymise or edit their comments before publication.

This is the fifth and final report, covering the session on protecting and restoring public trust in government. The first focused on how to protect living standards in an era of conflict and inflation; the second on leadership and delivery in the post-pandemic world; the third on public health and resilience; and the fourth on artificial intelligence.

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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