News and Comment

The public sector needs to regain the trust of communities

Monday 4 March 2013

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How do we maintain, or in some cases rebuild, the trust which communities place in professions?

This was the question those attending the final roundtable in the series by Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and Professions for Good were faced with last Wednesday.  And it’s very welcome that these organisations are hosting such debates.

A difficult issue to tackle at the best of times, but with the shadow of banking and recent health scandals still looming large over our national consciousness, the situation has been made both more difficult and more pressing recently.

Back in 2004, in partnership with CIPFA and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, OPM produced the Good Governance Standard for Public Services. These guidelines comprised “six principles of good governance that are common to all public service organisations and are intended to help all those with an interest in public governance to assess good governance practice”.

There has been much more guidance published on good governance since that time but still the steady stream of failures has continued, suggesting that the problem is not ignorance of what good governance looks like, but behaviour which has at times knowingly flouted it.

Solving behavioural or cultural problems within an organisation or institution is no easy task. Clearly no silver bullet solution exists, as the persistence of trust-eroding episodes demonstrates. But we can confidently suggest that more tick box regulation is not the answer.

There is a parallel in the current state of the relationship between the public and a wide range of public and private sector leaders. If trust is at an all time low, as many indicators like the Edelman global trust barometer are telling us it is, then more of the same is unlikely to improve it.  The public are sceptical about much of what they hear from ‘official’ channels, despite the fact that much of this information is accurate, informative and often beneficial or advisory.

All public services must present complex information in ways that engage the public, lest it be interpreted as an attempt to confuse, or worse, deceive.  In our own Unlocking Local Capacity research we found that councils find it more difficult to encourage local people to play more active roles in their communities if they have poor experiences of the council and lack trust in the council’s ability to do a good job. We noted how a number of councils have taken new and sometimes quite radical approaches to building trust among citizens, which when done correctly, has led to stronger relationships between council staff and local people and formed the basis for greater coproduction in the way services are designed.

So we suggest that solutions lie in the skills and behaviours of public sector communicators.  Many councillors and officers are good at communicating complex issues and building trust, and many more across public services can be supported to further improve these skills and to behave in ways which help to build trust.

The public sector, and all the professions in it, have an important role to play in reversing the prevalence of distrust in society.