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Conduct and the public sector – it’s all about trust

Trust in government has been on a rollercoaster in recent months.

In December 2019, the Australian Election Study found that voters’ trust in government had reached its lowest level on record with just 25% of Australians believing that people in government can be trusted to do the right thing, while three quarters believed that ‘people in government are looking after themselves’.[1]

By April 2020, however, an Essential Research poll found that the proportion of voters who ‘trust the government is giving honest and objective advice’ was 63%.[2]

The primary reason for this shift in attitude is COVID-19.

Australians have generally given high marks to the way Commonwealth, State and Territory governments have conducted themselves during the pandemic. Government now has a real opportunity to shift the conversation on public sector trust, professionalism and ethics.

But how can governments maintain this trust and translate the lessons learnt from Australia’s robust public response to COVID-19 into building and maintaining trust in other areas of government conduct?

First of all, there needs to be an understanding of what conduct means in government and it’s all about trust.

There is an expectation that governments provide fair and suitable outcomes for citizens in their delivery of policy, regulation, programs and services, particularly for vulnerable Australians – this is trust in government.

This includes agencies with extended service delivery models that need to ensure suitable client outcomes are achieved through third parties.

With many government programs now fully or partly delivered through contracted entities in the private sector, the problem of aligning behaviours and incentives to ensure suitable client outcomes are achieved is an ongoing concern.

Agencies need to consider whether their partnering relationships are putting trust in government at risk through misconduct by contracted entities.

Unlike private sector organisations, there is also an expectation for trust through government – that government will ‘step in’ to deliver fair and sustainable outcomes for vulnerable Australians following a market, social or welfare failure.

Recent Royal Commissions, reviews and schemes – and in particular the National Redress Scheme for people who have experienced institutional child sexual abuse – are key examples of this.

This aspect of public sector conduct focuses on using government’s unique assets and capabilities to rebuild trust in particular areas of the Australian community.

In addition to current remediation programs, government may deploy a robust remediation role following the finalisation of the Aged Care, Disability Services and Bushfire Royal Commissions, further building and maintaining public trust.

These twin strands of public sector conduct – of trust in and through government – both require serious consideration by governments in translating lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic to rebuilding and sustaining trust in other domains.

The other key elements to be considered in how governments have built and continued to maintain trust during the pandemic are:

  • Co-equal governance: Bipartisan commitment, the engagement of State and Territory governments in a national cabinet and deference to public health experts has been key in building public trust.
  • Ongoing communication: Governments at all levels have prioritised ongoing communication around public health and worked hard to articulate differing levels and movement in restrictions (such as social distancing and closures) over time. Although this communication has not been perfect and ambiguities exist, Australia’s nuanced response between States and Territories has generally been effectively communicated.
  • Transparency in design: The COVIDSafe app, though attracting some controversy, has also reflected changes in government approaches to technology design and deployment. More than six million Australians have downloaded the app and the government has taken some steps – such as releasing the app’s source code – to furthering public understanding and take-up.

Applying these principles, amongst others, to other domains of public administration would significantly help in building and sustaining trust in and through government.

For leaders in the public sector, there are three actions they can take to ensure conduct is front and centre in their organisation. 

1. Question and re-evaluate to do the right thing

The way things have always been done might not be the best way and could actually be doing harm.

To address this, it’s important to re-evaluate and question, admit mistakes, understand the root cause of problems and actively fix them. Being accountable for the right outcomes, and holding others accountable, will build a culture focused not just on the ‘can we?’ but the ‘should we?’.

2. Build trust into the design from day one

Look at the organisation’s decision making and build customer and stakeholder outcomes and fairness into the design from the start and deliberately seek to understand the negative impacts of what you do.

Also consider existing systems and processes – what is it that you do now that isn’t responding to people who are vulnerable? Get feedback from the frontline, from consumer and external advocates. Create experiences for senior leaders where they get closer to the coalface and are accountable and appoint a citizen advocate.

3. Make sure no-one is unfairly disadvantaged by what you do

The key to this, is understanding your stakeholders and their vulnerabilities and not just focusing on achieving the organisation’s own objectives, but on the outcomes of those stakeholders. You need to think of risk to others from what you do and not just the risk to you or the department/organisation.

As Australia moves from a posture of response to recovery, trust will be a major catalyst. Government has a unique opportunity to leverage the increase in trust engendered through its pandemic response to critically assess other areas of citizen interaction and rebuild, maintain and extend trust in and through government.

Find out how Deloitte can help governments build, sustain and protect public trust. You can also watch our recent COVID conversations video ‘What will happen to trust after COVID-19?'

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