Winning citizens’ trust: Global Government Summit 2018, part 5

By on 23/05/2018
Nadine Smith, global director of marketing and communications, Centre for Public Impact.

To address the social, economic and political challenges facing countries around the world, civil servants must replenish citizens’ waning trust in the institutions and operations of government. At the 2018 Global Government Summit, top officials discussed how to reconnect with communities – and identified the responsibilities that limit their ability to play the nice guy

In consultations undertaken by the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), its Global Director of Marketing and Communications Nadine Smith told delegates at the 2018 Global Government Summit, communities have told the organisation that they see government as distant and opaque. “People said they don’t know what government is doing for them; that it feels like a big unknown – something faceless and distant,” she said. “They want government to build a vision for the future, but they can’t see one; so you get feelings of anger and grievance.”

This is a particular problem for central government, as the delegates – top civil service leaders from the 11 participating countries, meeting in Singapore in February for the annual Summit – knew only too well. The citizens of their home nations all know frontline public service workers such as police and doctors, but few have a strong sense of the role or value of civil servants.

Smith’s comments struck a chord with Mikhail Pryadilnikov, Deputy Director of the Analytic Center for the Russian Government, who commented on the difficulties of “translating big national policies into a language that people can understand. We’ve put our Budget programmes on our website, but people don’t care how many buildings have been renovated or how many schools built across the country – they care about the school in their local community.”

Policy, action, legitimacy

To win public engagement and deliver policies successfully, Smith argued, governments have to demonstrate competence on three fronts: policy, action, and legitimacy. Of these, explained her colleague CPI Programme Manager Magdalena Kuenkel, good policy requires clear objectives, feasibility and strong evidence. Action demands good management, measurement, and alignment with other relevant agendas. And legitimacy rests on public confidence, political commitment and stakeholder engagement.

People want to be part of how decisions are made, said Smith, and to build a relationship with government – but too often, they feel that engagement is half-hearted. So governments’ attempts at consultation, for example, are often restricted to binary choices over specific policy proposals – limiting people’s influence. Citizens want to “think through the options that are available, consider the uncomfortable trade-offs they have to make, and – once they’ve made their decision – to track how it made a difference.”

Policy, action, legitimacy

There are mechanisms for giving people that range of choices, commented Kuenkel: Australia’s Melbourne People’s Panel, for example, brought together 43 randomly-selected citizens to set the city council’s priorities in spending over A$5bn (US$3.9bn). “They met over six weekends, talked with experts, deliberated like a jury and presented a plan to the council,” she said. “A lot of their ideas made it into the council’s strategy, and the participants really felt they’d been listened to.”

Commissioning experts to help develop policies can also help build legitimacy, taking some of the politics out of debates – but Smith warned that this can prove counter-productive if governments then ignore the experts’ recommendations. “People told us that the government commissions experts to write reports, but then doesn’t implement what they’ve been told.”

People can also be suspicious of experts, she added, asking “how were they chosen; do they look like me; can they empathise with me?” And this point extends to civil servants and politicians: building a more diverse workforce and rewarding leaders for empathetic behaviour, she argued, can help governments to understand and engage with communities. “How can policy be effective if those creating it don’t understand the people it’s intended to benefit?

Addressing historical injustices

Yaprak Baltacıoğlu, Canada, Paul Huijts, Netherlands, Leo Yip, Singapore, John Manzoni, United Kingdom, Andrew Kibblewhite, New Zealand, Peter Ong, Singapore

Asked for examples of effective ways to build public legitimacy, the senior officials had plenty. Andrew Kibblewhite, Chief Executive of New Zealand’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, named the country’s 30-year programme to address the injustices suffered by its Maori communities. Involving historical and community research, a panel of judges and compensation payments, he said, it’s “become a fundamentally important part of New Zealand’s journey through and towards biculturalism.”

Yaprak Baltacıoğlu, Canada’s Secretary of the Treasury Board, responded that Canada has experienced similar problems in gaining the trust of its own indigenous people – who had perceived Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the agency responsible for them, as “a remnant of colonialism.”

“So the prime minister came in and broke it up,” she recalled. “We now have two different departments, and one of them is responsible for government-to-government relations” – meaning relations with the indigenous peoples’ own councils. “That sent a huge message: that this isn’t about us deciding what services you’ll receive, but about two orders of government working together.”

Involve people, demonstrate action

Mikhail Pryadilnikov, deputy director, Analytic Center for the Russian Government

Several people mentioned forms of participatory democracy – from the Australian 2020 Summit, in which 1000 citizens debated the country’s priorities and planned out new programmes, to local debates and referendums determining spending decisions. Vichet Seat, Director of the Public Service Department in Cambodia’s Ministry of Civil Service, explained that his government has created an environmental forum bringing together activists, scientists and NGOs: “It’s reduced tensions between the activists and the government, because in the past they didn’t meet face to face,” he said. “Now they discuss problems and try to find a solution.”

John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the UK civil service, pointed out that sometimes sensible policies can be given momentum by third parties: he cited naturalist David Attenborough’s Blue Planet TV series, “which is legitimising action on plastic bottles in a way that government couldn’t.”

Governments have to win legitimacy by demonstrating action and awareness on two fronts, argued Leo Yip, Singapore’s Head of the Civil Service. “One is the here and now, showing on an ongoing basis that you understand people’s concerns and that you’re addressing them,” he said. “And the other is about tomorrow: you’ve got to show that you’re making progress for a better tomorrow – working to ensure their children have a better future.”

Build shared visions & authentic connections

Paul Huijts, secretary-general, Ministry of General Affairs (Prime Minister & Cabinet Office), The Netherlands

That chimed with Smith and Kuenkel, who have examined case studies from around the world to derive “five common behaviours that people demand of their governments. And the first is to work together on creating a shared vision for the future.”

The second is to “build an authentic connection” at a human level – so admit your mistakes; share personal experiences; don’t talk down to people. “We hear a lot about evidence-based policies, but people want to connect on a personal level – and they want honesty about what government can’t do,” commented Smith.

“People are more ready to take ‘no’ for an answer than you’d expect, as long as you’re genuinely interested in their problems,” agreed Paul Huijts, Secretary-General at the Netherlands’ Ministry of General Affairs. “It takes courage to tell them why you can’t do something, but a surprising number of people will accept the fact that they can’t have it all as long as they’re being taken seriously and brought into solving the problem. Our problem, I guess, is that in our wealthy societies we’ve created the idea that we’re going to help everyone all the time.”

Sometimes, he added, this view is fostered by politicians and government officials who over-promise in the hope of avoiding criticism: “But it’s a false idea of popularity, because they’d gain much more appreciation and credibility if they said: ‘I hear you, I understand you, but I’m not the person to help you’.” Expectations management is important, agreed Kuenkel: “Government needs to communicate what it’s there for and what it isn’t.”

Empathise, listen, be open

Leo Yip, head of civil service, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore

The third behaviour is empathy – and Smith argued that this apparently inherent attribute can be taught, then used in service design. Bangladesh sends its civil servants out to experience services from the users’ perspective, added Kuenkel, with real impact on service delivery: one under-used health clinic for the poor saw a dramatic rise in visitors after it provided a waiting room, enabling citizens to avoid the shame of being seen in the queue.

Fourth is to value people’s opinions, and to show how you’re responding. And fifth is transparency – not so much in terms of publishing data, which Smith sees as a “minimum requirement”, but in explaining “how you’re operating; what your role is; what you can and can’t do; who’s influencing you; and where you are in the delivery cycle.” In Kansas, USA, said Kuenkel, the mayor not only updates performance indicators every week on progress against his priorities, but holds monthly meetings “where citizens are invited to call in and ask questions or submit ideas.”

These five behaviours made sense to the civil service leaders – but some highlighted the challenges facing central government leaders seeking to demonstrate them. “You’re talking about legitimacy at a local level: at the town hall,” pointed out Manzoni. “Sometimes, with the scale of the issues we face, there’s no perfect answer – so government just has to make a decision.”

“That’s the role of government: deciding the collective good – and you’ll never get everyone happy with those kinds of decisions,” agreed Huijts. “Civil servants who are afraid of that kind of decision are in the wrong game.”

Sometimes, governments can win broad-based support for controversial policies by linking them to wider points about their country’s principles, culture and beliefs, argued Canada’s Baltacıoğlu. When same sex marriage was legalised over a decade ago, she recalled, the government built its case around “the constitution and human rights – and in Canada, human rights is part of the country’s psychology. So they were able to explain it in a way that meant people felt that, even if they didn’t like it, it was fair.”

Deal with today, plan for tomorrow

Magdalena Kuenkel, programme manager, Centre for Public Impact

Singapore’s Leo Yip added that governments can build the public confidence required to see them through difficult times by engaging and explaining on a more routine basis. “Often, people’s interactions with government occur when something goes wrong,” he pointed out. “There’s a case for government to be more proactive, talking about what we’re doing so that when we have a limited ability to help people with a problem, we start the conversation from a position of trust.”

In the long term, he argued, civil servants can also help build trust in government by identifying and focusing on the structural challenges facing a country – avoiding the temptation to get distracted by short-term issues whilst leaving underlying problems unresolved. “All too often – and we see it even more profoundly now – the pressures on governments and civil services are towards short-term fixes,” he said. “But we in the civil service have a responsibility to keep our focus on the long-term.”

“We must stay the course to build the civil services of the future, even while the political pressures and public demands are for short-term fixes,” he concluded. “A responsible government must deal with today’s pressures, whilst simultaneously creating a country and a civil service for tomorrow.”

This is part 5 of our report on the 2018 Global Government Summit. Part 1 covered an analysis of the challenges facing governments by Singapore civil service chief Leo Yip, plus UK civil service Chief Executive John Manzoni’s explanation of Britain’s reform journey. Part 2 focused on New Zealand’s civil service reform journey, with Andrew Kibblewhite – head of the country’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In part 3, two top Singapore officials set out their country’s public sector reforms. In part 4, BCG experts and top officials discussed the opportunities and risks around artificial intelligence. And in part 6, top officials explored how governments can help protect social mobility and median incomes in an era of rapid technological change.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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