How to rebuild trust between elected officials, citizens and public managers? | Protecteur du Citoyen
August 19, 2013

How to rebuild trust between elected officials, citizens and public managers?


Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning,

When I was invited to participate in this panel, I immediately noted the unambiguous wording of the question we have to debate: how to rebuild trust between elected officials, citizens and public managers ? This question clearly implies that this bond of "trust" has been destroyed, because it has to be "rebuilt".

I reserve my opinion on this observation for later. Essentially, however, it is clear that trust is a pillar of governance, and that its establishment, restoration or maintenance – depending on the context – today is a major issue for elected officials and public administrators.

I address you with the greatest respect for your institutions and your offices. You perform an essential mission: to serve the public by providing them with services fundamental to their welfare, public services that must serve the public interest. Your mission is often complex, which is not always recognized at its fair value when commenting on the performance of governments and public organizations. In particular, I personally believe that the engagement and involvement of elected officials are frequently undervalued. These elected officials, in the first place, must be able to rely on the public administration’s solid expertise.

We know the importance of a well-governed state to ensure an efficient justice system, allow access to services and programs fundamental to the population, and maintain law and order. Countries where democracy is shaky, and which therefore do not have strong and legitimate institutions, or guidelines to enforce the rule of law, are also countries whose citizens do not benefit from adequate public services, solidarity measures for the most disadvantaged, and equitable redistribution of wealth.

This has been recognized over the past few decades, and more recently in countries where the regime has been overthrown due to the exasperation of citizens abused by the leaders in power. And yet the aftermath is not always for the best. We have also seen this in countries where poor public administration has led to technical bankruptcy, if not to financial and social instability.

This kind of situation certainly does not prevail in Canada, in Québec and in the other provinces. However, in my opinion, the implicit observation of our panel’s theme question is clear. Yes, because governments have not always been able to meet the population’s legitimate expectations, the foundations of people’s trust in public services have been shaken here as well, on different occasions over the decades. This must not escape your attention. As managers, you are directly and primarily concerned.

I considered the factors at the origin of the loss of trust, so that I could properly target the possible remedies. I consulted a number of specialized works, one of which aroused my interest in particular. This is a study entitled: confidence in public institutions: faith, culture or performance? It was produced by Kenneth Newton of the University of Essex and Pippa Norris of the John F. Kennedy School of government at Harvard. They studied confidence in public institutions in seventeen democratic countries, including Canada. They compared the evolution of this confidence between the early 80s and the early 90s, with the goal of identifying the long-term trends. They found a loss of effective public confidence in leaders in all of these countries, even though they have democratic regimes. As you will see, this study transcends time. Its conclusions remain of interest today.

Incidentally, their comparative study was produced in the early 80s and the 90s. It focused on five major public institutions and the same number of private institutions (including the press and the church) in 17 democratic industrialized countries, including Canada, which ranked 6th in terms of the rate of confidence in public institutions, with a confidence rate slightly lower than the one obtained by Canadian private enterprises, which ranked 4th for the seventeen countries studied. It is interesting to note that the loss of confidence increased between the two decades for both categories.
Newton and Norris sought to identify the possible causes of this loss of confidence, based on three postulates:

  1. Does it result primarily from the psychological profile of citizens who are naturally inclined or not inclined to have confidence ?
  2. Does it result primarily from cultural conditioning forged by life experience?
  3. Is it due to the performance of the institutions themselves?

What do they conclude? That the first postulate, concerning the psychosocial assumptions (satisfaction with life, education, income, gender, age and social involvement), has very little overall influence on citizens’ satisfaction with their public institutions. Their finding also does not lead them to accept this loss of confidence as a significant factor. Their second postulate is based on the sociocultural assumptions – for example, increased competition and competitiveness resulting from globalization, post-modernism, growing individualism, disintegration of social and community life.

Without excluding the influence of certain sociocultural factors, Newton and Norris consider that the inadequate performance of governments and public institutions primarily explains citizens’ growing loss of confidence in them.

What conclusions can be drawn from all this ?

There is one essential conclusion, in my opinion: in looking for the cause of the loss of trust, you should not turn first to external factors, but rather to your organization’s performance. This may seem obvious. However, executives of institutions that are losing trust are a long way from taking this conclusion for granted. Too often there is a gap between their own perception of their organization’s performance and how their clientele perceives it.

Once accountability (your organization’s responsibility) is recognized, it is now important for you to know the answer to the following question:

What are the potential bases of dissatisfaction, leading to the public’s lack of trust and disillusionment with my organization?

I will try to give you a few paths, inspired by the several bases of dissatisfaction individuals have expressed to the Québec ombudsman, dissatisfaction that is at the origin of their disputes with public bodies. Incidentally, these same grounds of dissatisfaction are recognized by all Canadian provinces. My remarks, therefore, are not limited to Québec.

Citizens tell us about:

  • Their feeling that they have not been considered (listened to, heard) and treated correctly (with justice and fairness).
  • Their misunderstanding of the administration’s decision or action, and therefore their impression that it is unfounded (was the decision unjustified, poorly justified or poorly communicated?).
  • Their feeling that the administration is an "adversary": that it is not working in the citizen’s interest, that it is not trying to treat him or her fairly, that it does not recognize that the citizen is the client.
  • Their impression that they are David, unevenly matched against Goliath, that the public servant is prejudiced and all-powerful.
  • Their conviction that they are paying taxes without obtaining equivalent value in terms of services and the quality of services.

A single one of these grounds, in itself, may lead to loss of trust in a public institution. Often, several of these factors are present in the same dispute. I should point out that, even though the administration may have made the right decision on the merits, loss of trust may result from failure to justify the decision sufficiently, the public servant’s ineptness in communicating it clearly and empathetically, and the absence of a search for alternatives to help the individual.

I insist on the importance of the human factor in the relationship of trust. Deviation by executives and workers from the fundamental values of the public service (justice, fairness, probity, concern for the common good, transparency, impartiality) is most often at the origin of the erosion – if not the loss – of trust.

Over the past few decades, there has been a lot of reflection about governance and the tremendous impact of technology to improve our performance. A major advance – perhaps the most important, in view of what the information technology revolution has accomplished – is that the population in most societies is increasingly informed, in real time, and increasingly aware of its rights. The government’s version of the truth, the official line, is no longer – or decreasingly – taken for granted. People no longer are willing to be told by the administration, whether by an elected official or a front-line public servant, that the government knows what is best for them. Citizens today have strict requirements of transparency, frankness and efficiency from the public administration. They do not tolerate abuse of power, usurpation of the collectivity’s resources, or mismanagement, whether by an elected official, an administrator or any government employee.

The taxpayers will become even more demanding with regard to the probity of executives and administrators, and the quality of services provided at every level, whether public or private.

While it must be recognized that we have made major progress on accessibility of public information, particularly in mandatory accountability to parliaments, we must acknowledge, at the same time, that this work, leading to optimum transparency, is not over. The quantity of accessible information does not guarantee its quality and relevance, whether in public institutions or in social networks.

This reading of the current public service environment provides us with paths to restore – if not safeguard and reinforce – the bond of trust between public administrators and the administered. Here are the four paths I have chosen personally. Even though I have only chosen four, you will see that they are all demanding, imposing direct requirements on you, and that they incorporate several dimensions of public management.

  • The first path: be an ethical role model

The public service is the depository of the public’s trust. Ethics in the public service is necessary for this confidence and reinforces it. Executives, whether elected officials or managers, must adopt and abide by very high standards of conduct, be a model for their collaborators and ensure that these standards are enforced at every level of their organization.

Among these standards, the commitment to serve the public interest, integrity, objectivity, respect for individuals, transparency and legitimacy are essential.

  • The second path: don’t promise what you can’t deliver

The realism of your commitments and transparency in this regard are inseparable from credibility. The straight forwardness and clarity of your statements are always appreciated and often make it possible to defuse time bombs. If there is any discrepancy from what you have planned and announced, say so and explain why. Transparency is better than camouflage.

Obviously, communication cannot be only one way and limited to what you choose to release. You must know what the public needs to know and wants to know. Within the legal limits, you must adopt a policy of systematic disclosure of this information. You must take the lead and facilitate bidirectional and multidirectional communication, which technology, particularly social media, makes accessible to you.

  • The third path: motivate your collaborators to take pride in the service they provide

The challenge, for all organizations, is to bring all personnel, regardless of their status, office or seniority, to understand that the culture of service goes beyond mere compliance with the law – that it does not favour administrative convenience to the detriment of the public interest. This supposes that each employee benefits from adequate autonomy, so that they individually can assess the best way to apply good administrative principles actively every day, instead of simply avoiding cases of poor administration.

At this point we can transpose the theme question of our panel and ask our collaborators: on what basis can public service employees trust their organization? Adherence to the culture of service is inseparable from motivation on the job. Labour relations specialists generally consider the following four factors as unavoidable in maintaining employees’ pride in their organization:

  • The exemplary role played by their authorities;
  • The quality of the product or the service they contribute to designing, managing and delivering;
  • Their clients’ satisfaction;
  • Their own adequate treatment, that is, recognition of their contribution to the organization’s success (salary in this case is not one of the only factors, or even one of the leading factors. The feelings of being useful and appreciated, and being treated fairly, respected and supported, are the most important of all).
  • The fourth path: get out of your office !

This is essential so that you are not influenced only by the experts around you and ensure a more accurate knowledge and understanding of your clientele’s needs. A quality relationship with your clients supposes, above all, that you understand their needs. How can you satisfy them – and deserve their trust – if you do not understand them and do not adapt your services accordingly?

Citizens, in 2013, are less homogeneous than ever. Undoubtedly, the most obvious illustration is the technological illiteracy of one segment of the population, compared to the almost compulsive mastery of all technologies by another segment of that same population. This poses a fundamental challenge of service for us. When citizens tell us that they feel misunderstood – and even misled – this is often because they perceive that the public service does not adapt to them, to their specificities, and that you are asking them – even though they are the clients – to adapt to your service’s imperatives. In plain language, they perceive that you are asking them to cater to your administrative convenience.

Public policies and governance can no longer be designed in a vacuum. The constant relationship with clients, and with representative groups and associations, is an important source of reading and understanding of the environment, essential to gauge your organization’s efficiency and the necessary adjustments. In my opinion, this is a fundamental lever for "a public administration that reinvents itself". It probably involves a change of attitude for some.

Indeed, many executives and managers still have the natural reflex of considering representative groups and associations as adversaries. This deprives them of important sources for better understanding their reality – at least as it is perceived by the people for whom the agency exists. This also deprives them of opportunities to make themselves better understood by people of influence, who relay information to citizens who cannot be reached directly or who cannot express themselves. For some aspects, these “relays” can also become allies.

The contribution of the representative groups and associations often helps you reach a better understanding of the ins and outs of a decision to be made. They can influence your reflection and improve your decision-making. Their opinion is also important in assessing the impact of your decisions.

In conclusion

This is what I considered essential to convey to you, in such a short time, without the nuances and deeper analysis that I agree would be necessary, because the issues involved in trust are not unequivocal.

Above all, what I hope you will retain from my remarks is that you are managers first and foremost, and guardians of the public’s trust. This trust is based on pillars that all depend on human factors, which fall under your responsibility as executives and managers. You are at the core of managing trust.

Thank you.