Friday, July 04, 2014

What happens to governments when the trust disappears?

It's difficult for governments to remain effective when the support of citizens evaporates. History is littered with failed states, civil wars and insurrections resulting from society's loss of trust in their rulers and governance systems.

In authoritarian states this support is often built on fear, coercion and control, which can prove to be very fragile when citizens lose their fear of a government, as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria have most recently demonstrated.

Whereas in democratic states support is given willingly based on a covenant that governments will do the best for all in society and citizens will follow laws on the basis that they are applied equally. When these covenants break down, they tends to do so more gradually and over a longer period of time, with a gradual loss of support as governments become more selective in who they govern for and institutions are eroded through partisan appointments, corruption and budget cuts.

However the end result can be similar, as Thailand, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Fiji have demonstrated, with civil war, authoritarian takeovers or societies completely breaking down.

It can take much time for societies to recover from these breakdowns, with economic loss, insecurity and often deaths before a state regains its feet.

Right now we appear to be living in a time of low trust in governments and many institutions, including public services around the world.

Globally the Edelman Trust barometer for 2014 recorded a 4% decline in overall trust in government from 2013 to 2014 (refer slide 23 in the deck) - with particular falls in the US, France and Hong Kong.

This has also been documented in US studies, where trust in the Senate is at only 7%, at 29% for their House of Representatives, and trust in the President's office in decline.

Australia saw an increase year-on-year in the Edelman Trust Barometer, however this wasn't evident in the latest Essential Report (1 July), which roughly annually assesses people's views of government and different institutions.

With an error of +/- 3% at a 95% confidence interval, the survey suggested that 31% of citizens trusted the Commonwealth Public Service, 25% trusted the Federal Parliament and only 12% trusted political parties.

Local councils did marginally better than any of the above groups at 33% trust. State governments were more trusted again at 39% (Queensland) up to 54% (NSW).

Also according to Essential, only 31% of people trusted the government to responsibly use any information collected and held about them.

Now these are numbers in isolation, what's more interesting is a trend over time.

Unfortunately Essential has only been polling on these topics for a few years - with some institutions (such as local councils) only starting last year, so it's hard to form an impression as to whether trust is increasing or decreasing in the longer-term, though many have seen short term declines in the last year.

Of particular note is the decline in trust in the Commonwealth Public Service, which has plummeted from 49% in 2011 to only 31% in 2014.

This is a 50% decline in only four years and should worry all senior public servants.

A lack of trust can lead to difficulties in sourcing information for policy creation, in getting the right people to contribute to shaping policies and can raise difficulties in implementing programs as communities ignore or distrust communications from the government.

Adjunct to this is the low ongoing trust in political parties, which has probably contributed to the high number of independents and minor parties elected in the last two federal elections. In fact a quarter of the seats in the current Senate are held by non-major parties, the highest proportion in our history.

This also contributes to difficulties in passing laws (as we're seeing already) and can lead to parliamentary paralysis. While the government of the day does have the ability to request a double dissolution election with the right trigger (which is already in place), its unlikely a government will do this unless they believe they can improve their position, which isn't the case right now according to opinion polls, and based on the trend appears to be getting less likely by the week.

Total trust2014201320122011
The High Court57%74%60%72%
The ABC54%70%54%46%
The Reserve Bank52%64%49%67%
Your local council31%38%
The Commonwealth Public Service31%35%30%49%
Federal Parliament25%31%22%55%
State Parliament24%28%
Political parties13%12%12%

At the same time we've seen a change in how Australians perceive democracy as a form of governance, with New Matilda recently covering Lowy research which suggests that, "Democracy No Longer On The Nation's Radar".

The research has been conducted for ten years and has shown a growing disillusionment with democracy in Australia. As reported by New Matilda,
"only 60 per cent of the Australians Lowy surveyed believed that “Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”. By contrast, 24 per cent of Australians held the opinion that “In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.” Another 13 per cent felt that “For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”

For Generation Y respondents the figures were even more striking, with only 42% of respondents preferring democracy.

While these levels of trust in our system, politicians and public service are not yet critical, they are definitely concerning and need to be understood, monitored and causes addressed appropriately.

That leads to the next point - the causes of low trust in Australia and around the world.

I've blogged previously about how the internet is a contributing factor to this trust issue. People are able to rapidly share information, expose falsehoods and politically and socially organise more rapidly than ever before, and this has a material impact on how nations conduct their affairs.

I don't think many governments have yet internalised the impact of the internet on their political and governance behaviour, and this is costing them respect, lost time and effort.

The push for open government, which has stalled in Australian political circles (even going backwards in some areas in the last year), is a reaction to governments seeking to control information flows, even online, and generally failing due to failures to adjust their culture, regulations and behaviours to operate effectively in a digital society.

More openness is good for governments - provided they have thick skins, are prepared to accept criticism and are equal to the task of transforming both political and governance institutions into more engaging and effective communicators.

Without this transformation, governments are increasingly scoring own goals - damaging their political and governance credibility through secretive decision-making processes and decisions that are either or both poorly conceived and poorly communicated.

The 2014 Budget is a case in point - the government followed an 'old school' approach to leaking and preparing the public and then did the normal TV, radio and in-person select appearances to 'sell' it to citizens. However there was no real attempt to engage citizens online, through the social channels where the public were forming and hardening their views even before Ministerial media releases were published in newsprint.

Unfortunately we're still seeing the same behaviour repeated again and again - with government Ministers and agencies attempting to shutdown conversations they don't want by refusing to speak, an old-school approach which is based around government being the main source of information. Now, however, the community is willing to fill the gaps, so these conversations simply don't end - leaving government looking increasingly silly and ineffectual as the only silent group in the room.

This behaviour will contribute to further erosion of trust in institutions, and government agencies who do it to protect their Ministers are having the exact opposite effect - harming Australia's governance system in ways that may prove, over time, to be irreparable.

Governments are also scoring own goals through some of their decisions, which are only damaging the political estate further.

With all of this currently going on I am increasingly worried about the damage being done to Australian democracy and wonder whether it will be reversed before we see irreversal damage or the demise of one, or both, of our major political parties.

Through all of this I hope that the integrity and performance of the public service, recently rated one of the best in the world, is sustained, so that Australia will have the governance structures, expertise and dedication to rebuild trust in the systems we rely on to remain one of the happiest, most secure and wealthiest nations on earth.

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