Regaining public trust: sunlight is the best disinfectant

By on 25/07/2018 | Updated on 06/08/2019
Madrid decides: a 2017 participatory budgeting exercise in the Spanish capital, which allocated funds worth US$116m (Image courtesy: Diario de Madrid).

Citizens’ faith in their national governments is falling across much of the developed world. James Johns considers some of the innovative ways in which countries and cities around the world are trying to reconnect with their populations

Despite its more usual attribution to Otto von Bismarck, it was American poet and lawyer John Godfrey Saxe who in 1869 first observed that “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Historian Walter Bagehot approached the subject of public scrutiny of constitutional and legislative issues from a different direction when, a few years previously, he remarked of the role of the monarchy: “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” But the principle is the same: 150 years ago, those inside government firmly believed that those outside it should be kept at a safe distance.

These days, in most developed nations, the somewhat patrician idea that the public should not trouble their heads with the workings of government has long since fallen well out of favour. But in many countries, the public’s contemporary view certainly suggests that what they do observe of their governments is about as appealing to them as the inner workings of a sausage factory. Transparency may be essential, but it has not done much for public trust in government.

One does not have to search far for evidence that the public’s faith in their national governments is in crisis. In many countries, research indicates a loss of trust in institutions of all types – including business, the media and NGOs.

Declining trust

Global communications firm Edelman has been running its annual Trust Barometer survey for 17 years. Its most recent report suggests that the mass population (a group Edelman defines as representing roughly 87% of the public and excluding the highest-income, best educated and most informed working-age citizens) distrusts their institutions in 20 of the 28 countries surveyed. In half of these countries, a majority of people believe that the whole system is not working.

A participatory budgeting session in New York City (Image courtesy: Daniel Latorre).

A similarly bleak outcome is revealed in the 22 countries included in Ipsos Mori’s most recent Global Trends Survey, with 71% of people agreeing with the statement: “Our government does not prioritise the concerns of people like me.” The OECD’s 2017 ‘Government at a Glance’ survey, using data from Gallup, indicates that amongst its 35 member countries, on average, less than half of citizens (42%) have trust in their national governments – a decline of three percentage points since 2007. Only one in five Americans say that they can trust their government to do what is right “just about always” (4%) or “most of the time” (16%).

And the risks that brings

The perils to the traditional order of a sustained loss of faith in government have been well trailed. The recent victories of populist causes and candidates – such as the Leave campaign in the 2016 UK referendum on membership of the EU and Donald Trump in the same year’s US presidential election – are symptoms of a lack of trust in more established institutions and individuals. Both the strong showing from the Front National and the eventual victory of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche – a party which did not exist 12 months before France’s presidential election – are arguably born of the same malaise.

But it is not only the political consequences of a citizenry increasingly disconnected from their government which should trouble policymakers. The effects can run through many parts of society, manifested as an unwillingness to comply with regulations, increased corruption, and risk aversion amongst investors. There can also be a threat to social cohesion: minority groups can become further alienated, whilst there can be a reluctance on behalf of others to fund redistributive polices such as welfare.

A way forward

Notwithstanding the dissatisfaction expressed with national governments, there is scope for some optimism. The OECD’s 2017 ‘Trust in Government’ report suggests that, whilst only four in ten of its member states’ citizens claim to trust their national governments, their views on individual public services such as healthcare, education, transportation, policing and the judiciary are considerably more favourable. This led the OECD to conclude that “there is an opportunity to influence public trust by improving satisfaction with services independently of broader macro dynamics that may fall beyond the scope of control of policymakers”. They argue that to do so, governments need to focus on being more inclusive, transparent, receptive and efficient.

There are of course a myriad of potential interventions which could help deliver each of these goals. We have chosen four of the most commonly-encountered to explore the steps that policymakers might take to play their part in restoring trust in government; participatory budgeting; open government; co-creation; and digitisation. We will explore the first two of these here, and the remaining pair in the second part of this article.

Research from OECD and Gallup suggests that citizens’ trust in individual public services usually outstrips that which they have in their national governments.

Participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting is defined by the Policy Lab at the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) as “a process by which citizens and communities work with their local budget holders to decide priorities, identify resources and allocate these resources to the priorities.”

The concept originated in Brazil in the late 1980s as part of a series of policies designed to decentralise and democratise power in the aftermath of the military dictatorship which had ruled the country for more than 20 years. The first full-scale implementation was in the city of Porto Alegre, which now allocates more than 20% of the its annual budget through a process in which more than 50,000 of the city’s 1.5m inhabitants participate. The impact has been dramatic, with the World Bank noting that the process has led to significant improvements in the basic facilities enjoyed by the city’s residents, and a significant increase in the proportion of the budget spent on priorities such as education and welfare.

Following its introduction in Port Alegre, participatory budgeting (orçamento participativo in Portuguese) spread rapidly across Brazil and in other Latin American countries, and is now estimated to have been adopted in more than 1,500 cities around the world – including Barcelona, Cologne, Toronto and Paris. The French capital made available more than €100m (US$117m) of the city’s 2017 investment budget to projects created in response to citizen submissions. Successful projects are chosen through a voting system in which every Paris resident can take part. Between 2014 and the end of this decade, the city expects that half a billion euros will have been allocated through this method.

Delivery challenges

From reviews of existing implementations it is apparent that a well-managed and sustained participatory budgeting process can play an important role in better aligning services with the public’s priorities, as well as expanding a sense of citizenship, empowering traditionally excluded parts of the community, and stimulating civil society. The approach can be particularly powerful in illustrating the challenges associated with making trade-offs in the budgetary process, and in securing public support when these must be made.

Participatory budgeting is not, however, without its challenges. The process can be expensive to run and citizen’s expectations need to be managed carefully, particularly when budgets are tight. Experience from jurisdictions which have adopted it suggests that it works best when there are already high levels of community activism and where civil society is well established.

Most importantly, it must be about more than the distribution of small grants to the usual suspects amongst charities and community organisations: it must have a genuine and sustained impact on how significant sums of core public funding are allocated.

Open government

Bagehot’s views may have fitted his era. But today, the words of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis – “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman” – are more relevant to the challenge of improving trust in Government. Whilst Brandeis used the phrase in the context of an essay about Wall Street, the sentiment is equally relevant as a principal behind open government.

Though the idea of open government had been steadily gathering support amongst campaigners, David Cameron’s 2010 UK coalition administration was an early governmental champion of the movement. Whilst in opposition, his party had proposed greater transparency as a tool for regaining public confidence in the in the wake of the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal; and the notion gained further momentum when it was proposed as a mechanism to gain public support for the ‘austerity’ agenda introduced after the 2008 financial crisis.

When Cameron’s secretary of state for local government, Eric Pickles, announced plans for the first 60 councils to release details of all items of expenditure over £500, he called for “an army of ‘armchair auditors’” who would “pore over the information and hold their council to account if things are not done right.” Cameron’s minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis (now Lord) Maude was similarly enthusiastic, using his brief to push the openness agenda in policy areas such as technology and procurement.

Global open government

The Rt. Hon Sir Eric Pickles MP, who as UK secretary of state for local government called for an “army of ‘armchair auditors’” to review open data releases and hold their councils to account.

Indeed, Maude was one of the founding ministerial members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Formed in 2011 and initially comprising eight governments – including Brazil, the US, UK, Indonesia, Norway and South Africa – this body provides an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.

It now counts 75 nations amongst its members, whose governments have signed the Open Government Declaration committing themselves to a range of goals – including increasing the availability of information about governmental activities; supporting greater civic participation; ensuring the highest standards of professional integrity throughout their administrations; and increasing access to new technologies for openness and accountability. Member countries must create a national action plan, in partnership with civil society, setting out how they intend to realise these goals, backed by an independent reporting mechanism which holds them to account for delivering on these commitments.

The OGP has itself recently published a collection of essays on trust in government, drawing on the experiences of its members and other observers. Though there are undoubtedly some interesting examples of open government to be found amongst the case studies presented by the OGP’s members, it may be a little early to draw a direct line between compliance with its principles and an increase in trust. Of the six OGP founder members also included in the OECD’s rankings for Trust in Government, as many fall below the OECD average as above; and trust in four of the six has fallen since 2007.

Mixed blessings

Indeed, opinion on the link between transparency and trust in government is divided. Writing in the OGP report, José Luis Santa María Zañartu, the president of the Chilean government’s Council for Transparency, suggests that his organisation’s research demonstrates that citizens who have knowledge of their government’s regulations regarding access to public sector information “show statistically significant higher levels of trust in the public sector.”

However, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev argues that: “At the moment when government information is designed to be immediately open to everybody, its value as information stands in decline and its value as an instrument of manipulating the public increases.” He goes on to suggest that the effect of transparency is similar to that observed when gangsters in crime movies know that they are bugged. “They speak clearly and offer banalities, while at the same time exchanging secret notes under the table. This is how governments work in the age of transparency.”

In the UK, it didn’t take long before critics of the Cameron-era transparency measures emerged, when it became clear that producing meaningful and useful data from often out-of-date IT systems was something of a challenge. This prompted claims that the concept of armchair auditing was “naïve”. Without context, it was almost impossible to tell whether a particular item of expenditure was justified or represented value for money. For most serious investigative enquiries, Freedom of Information requests – which can be more carefully targeted – seem to be the more powerful tool.

Nevertheless, it would be nonsensical to use these problems to argue against greater transparency. Brandeis’ statement highlights the fact that bad behaviour within a system is less likely to occur in the first place if the participants know that there is a risk that they will be exposed; and if this were to turn out to be the only impact of a more open and transparent approach to government, it would hardly be a waste of time.

In part two of this article, we explore the role that co-creation and digitisation can play in delivering the last two of the OECD’s goals for re-establishing trust in government: becoming more receptive and more efficient.

About James Johns

James Johns is a consultant, strategist and digital policy advisor with more than 28 years' experience helping government organisations to make more effective use of technology. He began his career in the National Health Service and the IT services company Xansa, before spending fifteen years in a range of roles at Hewlett Packard. From 2007 to 2014 he was Director of Strategy for the firm's UK public sector business and more recently was HP's Director of Corporate Affairs for the UK & Ireland. James is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Policy Institute at King's College London and an advisor to the World Economic Forum's National Digital Policy Network.

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