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Public Sector Informant : PSI - October
Need an unrestricted government or in-house practising certificate, or want to move your career in the right direction with a better understanding of your in-house role? Our Legal Practice Management Course can help you make the move. Corporate / Government Course Fri19,Sat20andFri26Nov2010 Register Now! Visit www.collaw.edu.au/lpmc Make your move 4 THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT [OCTOBER 2010] [PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION:STEPHEN BARTOS] Rebuilding bridges with a wary public Trust To regain the public's confidence, the bureaucracy must learn to admit to its mistakes Fall guy: Labor's Peter Garrett shortly after he lost the energy efficiency portfolio earlier this year. Garrett took a bullet for his colleagues over the home insulation scheme's failures, and was poorly served by his department over the green loans program. The quality of the actual services does matter, and no amount of wordsmithing can disguise a failure to deal effectively with people. Late last month, Monash University issued the results of the Scanlon Foundation survey of Australian social cohesion. One of the key findings was a sharp fall in the level of trust in the federal government. The survey has been conducted three times -- in 2007, 2009 and 2010 -- by Monash's Professor Andrew Markus. One of the questions relates to respondents' level of trust in the federal government ''to do the right thing for the Australian people''. The report says ''those who responded 'almost always' and 'most of the time' fell from 48 per cent in 2009 to 31 per cent in 2010''. In 2007, the result was 40 per cent -- so a rise last year was followed by an even more dramatic drop in 2010. It is not entirely clear why there was this drop in trust. The report suggests it seems to be related to the fall in support for the Rudd Labor government between the two surveys, similar to falls recorded by the Age/ Nielsen poll and Newspoll over the same period. The loss of confidence was ''most marked among respon- dents who indicated that they would likely vote Greens . . . among suppor- ters of the Greens, trust in the federal government was halved''. The report speculates this is because the Greens supporters in the sample included those who had previously supported Labor. As tempting as it may be to put this all down to politics, the findings have worrying implications for the Aust- ralian Public Service. If people don't trust the government to do the right thing for the Australian people, it means they don't have much faith in the public service either. More than that, trust in the govern- ment also relates to how much we trust each other. The same Scanlon survey also found there was a drop in personal trust, ''with those agreeing that 'most people can be trusted' falling from 55 per cent to 45 per cent''. Trust is important to the effective functioning of society; it is an essential component of social capital (an issue United States researcher Professor Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, has researched in depth), and contributes to both econ- omic and emotional wellbeing. As noted in a 2006 report for the United Nations (by Peri Blind), a growing body of scholars consider that it is not social capital that produces political trust, but a trustworthy government, which then generates interpersonal trust. Trust is generated by the actions of government and also fundamental to the success of government. Import- antly, trust helps government raise the revenue it needs to function, a relationship explored exceptionally well in articles by Val Braithwaite and John Braithwaite through their work at the ANU's Centre for Tax System Integrity. While there is a myriad of different explanations for the long-term decline in trust in government ob- served in many countries over the past two decades, the rapid decline in trust shown in the Scanlon survey is likely to correlate closely with speci- fic instances where government failed to meet expectations. A story that ought to be true, though I have been unable to source it, is of a delegate from a Pacific island at a recent intergovernmental conference who said, ''Trust grows like a coconut tree, but drops like a coco- nut.'' As we have seen in Australia over the past year, trust in govern- ment is slow to develop but can be lost rapidly in light of adverse events. It would be comfortable, but misleading, for the public service to assume that the problems of trust relate only to politicians, and not to the delivery of services. Clearly there are areas of policy where the previous government lost political trust. Chief among them, according to many political commentators, was the shelving of action on climate change. However, there were also instances where it was failings in public sector implementation, rather than policy, that led to public disquiet. One such instance was the green loans program. The recent Australian National Audit Office performance audit on the program is scathing about it, pointing to a series of management failures. In this instance it was the public service that let down the minister, not the other way around. The ANAO found that ''the former minister received incomplete, inaccurate and untimely briefings on program design features and implementation progress, challenges and risks. Suffice it to say here, the former minister was not well served by his department in this respect during the period from July 2008 to late 2009 due to the poor quality briefings he received''. It is a far more serious case than the home insulation program, despite the media hysteria about the latter. The insulation program's management, while not faultless, was by and large effective and met its objectives -- as was shown in a thorough review by former Defence Department secretary Dr Alan Hawke. His report was either played down or quoted from selec- tively by a media that had already made up its mind. The green loans program was not as successful. It experienced funda- mental management failings, the ANAO says, findings accepted by the department as a fair assessment. They included: An absence of effective govern- ance by the Environment Department during the program's design and early implementation. Program management was devolved to too low a level within the department without sufficient active engagement by executive manage- ment. Key program management plans, including in relation to risk manage- ment, procurement, IT and commun- ications, were never finalised and endorsed by executive management. In the first 18 months of the program, there was no accurate costing of the program or monitoring of its budget. Extensive non-compliance with government and departmental pro- curement requirements (including multiple breaches of the Financial Management Regulations). Absence of an endorsed commun- ications strategy often resulted in key messages not being clearly commun- icated -- stakeholder communication was also not afforded sufficient priority. The absence of governance noted by the ANAO is very relevant to trust; as noted in the UN report mentioned earlier, ''the relationship between trust and good governance is circular: while trust in government and its representatives foment good governance, good governance in turn engenders and strengthens trust''. If this is a singular, isolated event, then remedial actions taken by the department since should end the matter. It is hard to escape the impression, though, that there is something amiss in the present cul- ture of the public service that means this is not an isolated instance. The distance between senior executives and program delivery has grown as the SES itself has grown, and personal accountability has dimini- shed, at the expense of good govern- ance. When problems in program man- agement arise, the immediate response is often to move the people responsible for the program to another area, and for senior ex- ecutives to make themselves as scarce as possible to avoid blame. Both are mistaken. Except in cases of fraud or deliberate mismanagement, people already working on a program should be retained to work through problems -- they know more about it than any fix-it jobbie brought in from outside -- but will need help and support, including senior executives' time and energy. It is precisely at this time when the upper levels in the hierarchy need to become more engaged, not vanish. The other mistake that has infiltrat- ed the public service is to turn to slick media relations -- spin -- rather than address underlying problems. The public is heartily sick of spin, the practice of pretending that problems don't exist or that a quick fix exists. The recent election results indicate the level of dissatisfaction with political spin, but the same can be said of both corporate and public service spin. The quality of the actual services delivered does matter, and no amount of wordsmithing can disguise a failure to deal effectively with people in delivering government programs. The former chief executive of airline company SAS, Jan Carlzon, achieved a significant turnaround in the fortunes of the company by improving the interactions of its staff with its customers. Every occasion when employees came into contact with customers he called a ''moment of truth'' in which impressions and relationships were formed. In the public service, there are literally thousands of such moments of truth between government and people each day. Most are done well. The unfor- tunate fact of service industries, though, is that failures are remem- bered far more than successes. A common aphorism in customer service is that a dissatisfied customer, if their problem is unresolved, will talk about their experience to 10 times as many people as the satisfied customer. In the public service, failed moments of truth in one department will have ripple effects far outside the immediate area concerned, affecting trust in government as a whole. The customer service literature does, however, show that if a com- plaint or a failing is resolved well, the customer can end up happier than if the problem had not occurred in the first place. For this to happen, though, a service provider must first acknowl- edge the problem, admit it is real, and accept responsibility to fix it. For a public service unused to admitting mistakes, this may be hardest cultural barrier of all to overcome. Stephen Bartos is a director of LECG and former senior public servant. email@example.com
PSI - September