Public trust in government isn’t only essential to service delivery – it restores the public sector too

By on 02/06/2021
Building links into communities can help civil services attract more diverse talent. Credit: Shreya Thomas/Unsplash

Opinion: Trust strengthens links with communities, and those bonds help to attract broader talent into public service, writes former New Zealand civil service chief Iain Rennie. After COVID-19, we must seize the opportunity to deepen this connection further

Trust in the New Zealand public sector has risen significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, 63% of New Zealanders had high levels of trust in the public sector brand, up from around 50% pre-pandemic, according to the most recent Kiwis Count survey.

The rise in trust isn’t surprising given the highly visible role of the public sector in New Zealand’s strong record in managing COVID-19 so far. Indeed Australia, which has also managed the pandemic well, shows a similar lift in satisfaction with public services in its 2020 Citizen Experience Survey results.

No doubt some of the COVID-19 trust bounce will unwind once the pandemic is behind us. But, even so, taking a longer view, trust has tended to rise. In New Zealand, when the first Kiwis Count survey was taken in 2007, trust in the public sector brand was only 29% – less than half current levels.  Again, this is not unique. In the UK, trust in civil servants to tell the truth rose from 25% in 1983 to 60% in 2020, according to the Trust in Professions survey by Ipsos Mori.

It’s no coincidence that both New Zealand and the UK perform well in international assessments of civil service effectiveness and report that aspects of trust have tended to rise over time.  Standing with communities at times of crisis and continuing civil service renewal and reform pays dividends in long-term public trust and confidence.

The benefits of public trust

But once the public trust you more, what licence can that provide?  At one level, higher trust is simply needed for public servants to do their day job. The public is increasingly sceptical about civil servants’ use of intrusive or blunt-edged tools.  In New Zealand, this discomfort has been recently seen across situations from the removal of children from families into care, high-speed pursuits by police and decisions to turn down the applications of many visa holders to enter the country during the pandemic.

A rise in trust also forms a good basis to strengthen links with communities. Those bonds create the reputation to attract a broader and more diverse pool of talent into public service than has been possible to date.  At its heart, the renewal of the public sector relies on its capacity to recruit and retain a genuinely diverse, highly skilled and ethical workforce.

This renewal is important for two reasons. Firstly, it helps to combat the long-term demographic challenges facing most civil services. Improving the voice and representation of women, ageing workforces, the declining appeal of public service to younger men, uneven improvements in engaging increasingly diverse communities in public service and recruiting at the frontiers of new areas of expertise are common challenges.

Furthermore, it helps to protect the reputation of an independent civil service. As political discourse moves away from debate around competing policy prescriptions for the public good to fostering competing electoral coalitions based around culture and attitudes, the idea of a non-partisan, professional civil service is at risk unless it is genuinely broadly-based. In short, the non-partisan civil service has to work harder to keep being viewed as one of “us” rather than one of “them”.

New ways of working

The significant expansion of the New Zealand public service in the years leading up to COVID-19 saw progress made around some of our capability challenges. Our ageing public service workforce has been checked for the moment, for example, and the influx of younger recruits has improved representation of some of our growing Asian communities.

But other challenges remain, such as the public service being disproportionately centred around the capital, Wellington. While the capital region makes up just under 10% of New Zealand’s population, over 44% of the public service resides there – and this proportion has risen in recent times.

In the past, with high internal labour mobility, capital centricity was less of a problem as people moved willingly around the country. As in other countries, however, labour mobility has declined. The sense of place matters much more, as does maintaining strong local connections with family, culture and faith. High and volatile house prices are also having a chilling effect on movement. The continuing expectation that people will move to Wellington to fill many public service jobs over time risks the creation of a much poorer public service in terms of skills, backgrounds and perspectives.

Fortunately, working through COVID-19 has provided us with innovative ways of taking jobs to people. Remote working, periodic commuting and using regional hubs to sustain connection and support mean that we are getting closer to the default position that many public service jobs should be able to be undertaken from anywhere in the country.

Similarly, several governments, including the UK’s, have plans to move significant numbers of civil servants from capitals with the intention of creating regionally-based, sustainable clusters of agencies or functions.  The New Zealand government has ambitious reform plans that involve structural change in areas from health to public broadcasting.  This provides an opportunity for the new agencies that arise to be based and work in quite different ways from past models.

Out of the tragedy of COVID-19, civil services have touched the lives of many people.  The empathetic and skilled support of civil servants for their fellow citizens has brought to many the capacity to make a difference through public service. If the public sector has the courage to work quite differently, there is the opportunity to lock-in a deeper connection to the community’s talent, leaving us well positioned to increase levels of public trust into the future.

About Iain Rennie

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