Distrusted by the young? Build integrity

Falling trust in government is a problem. It is a particular problem among the young. The Pew Research Center recently released data showing that US adults aged between 18 and 29 reported 22% less confidence in the military than those aged 50+, 18% less in the police, 6% less in school principals, and 4% less in elected officials (for whom, to be honest, even the ‘oldies’ only reported 38% confidence levels). Previous research confirms that the collapse in youth trust levels in the US is a general trend.

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Citizen trust matters for governments. It is needed to gain cooperation with communities, political support for risky projects, and legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. Distrust leaves governments vulnerable to cynicism, extremist politics and populism. Endemic distrust among the youth risks a disaffected generation growing old with no faith in the public institutions that need their support to survive.

What can governments do to address this problem?

Unsurprisingly, there is no secret sauce. Trust in government is affected by a preponderance of factors: economic performance, inequality, partisanship, media reporting and social integration levels between diverse groups. However, at the foundation of any government strategy to improve trust must be a commitment to being genuinely trustworthy. A government should not merely aim to improve citizens’ perceptions of its performance, but more importantly the reality of its performance. When and why should we rationally trust government anyway?

The aim of the Building Integrity Programme, based at the Blavatnik School of Government, is to answer that question. Just as with individual persons, integrity should be the logical basis for trust in government. We aim to define ‘public integrity’ for public officers and their institutions, determine its value, discern its determinants, and work with practitioners from around the world to help improve the public integrity of their institutions.

Public integrity involves more than ‘not being corrupt.’ After all, not being corrupt is a pretty low ethical bar. In our view, for public institutions, integrity requires four key elements. First, institutions must have a clear purpose, or set of purposes. Without a clear purpose an institution has no chance of being internally consistent and coherent. Second, institutions need to be legitimate. As citizens, we should not expect institutions always to act in a manner that we personally think best, morally good, or just. After all, disagreement about those issues is the essence of politics. However, we can reasonably demand that those institutions act within the constraints such as the law, due process, human rights, good faith and basic principles of fairness. Third, institutions need to keep their commitments. No agent is trustworthy if it cannot keep its commitments: to citizens, stakeholders, employees, contractors and other actors it engages. Finally, institutions need to be robust. They need various reactive and proactive mechanisms of internal and external accountability, transparency and support that ensure they retain purpose, legitimacy and commitments across time and circumstance.

This defines what we call ‘public institutional integrity’: purpose, legitimacy, keeping commitments and robustness. ‘Public officer integrity’ is a simple function of it. The integrity of individual public officers turns upon playing their role as ‘stewards’ or ‘trustees’ of the integrity of their institutions. They must take responsibility, often beyond the narrow scope of their job descriptions, to support the elements of overall public institutional integrity.

If this is the meaning of public integrity, then how might governments go about building it?

This is at the heart of our ongoing research in Brazil, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and more. For example, we recently completed a report on the integrity regime of the Australian Public Service (‘APS’), commissioned by the Commonwealth Government in conjunction with Australia and New Zealand School of Government. The report recommended the following.

First, define integrity. It might seem simple, but many public institutions including the APS, have ‘integrity regimes’ without any definition of ‘integrity’. This defining process should also include detailing the operational values at the heart of the organisation that seek to realise overall integrity. In the case of the APS we recommended reinserting an emphasis on ‘merit’ and a new value of ‘stewardship’ for APS employees ‘who are collectively responsible for its integrity’.

Second, embed integrity. Without a sustaining culture, values statements arrive as stillborn as the mission plaques on many corporate walls. In order to embed integrity within the culture of the APS, we recommended: first, a comprehensive, ongoing, annual, independent assessment of integrity performance set to targets, with survey data tested against more complex measures in key areas; second, an investment in ethical leadership, a move towards group-based, mandatory ethics training, senior ethics officers within each department, and a one-stop-shop for peer reporting and whistleblowing; and finally, an overall risk-driven strategy to investing integrity, using aggregate data to identify red flags like geographical isolation, high levels of sickness absence, austerity, low pay, downsizing and low levels of diversity.

Third, institutionalise integrity. Building integrity requires a legislative and regulatory framework, with specialist, independent institutions. We recommended that the current set of overlapping legislative instruments be rolled into one, clear Public Integrity Act, with a broader coverage across the whole public service, and anyone contracting to deliver public services. We recommended that the Commonwealth Government follow through on current plans for a Commonwealth anti-corruption commission. However, we pressed against current recommendations to include added ‘pro-integrity’ responsibilities within that commission. Our research indicates that institutions with both responsibilities inevitably end up prioritising with time, personnel and resources the urgent, media-sensitive demands of corruption investigations, rather than the important, less popular work of research, assessment, advice and support in implementing cultural and systemic change. Instead, we recommended establishing a separate, genuine ‘integrity agency’ to complement the new anti-corruption commission.

As our work with the Australian Commonwealth Government demonstrates, ‘public integrity’ is a powerful analytic tool to diagnose the pathologies of public institutions that might ground citizen distrust. It also offers a framework to think productively about building a more trustworthy set of institutions. Trust is a fragile commodity: once lost, it is hard to regain, especially in the modern political and media landscape. However, by working first on being worthy of trust, public institutions will be on a firmer ground to tackle citizens’ perceptions, including and especially those of today’s youth.

Nik Kirby is Research Fellow in Philosophy and Public Policy and Director of the Building Integrity Programme at the Blavatnik School.

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