Public governance and public trust

Selling a fast one
Public Services International and Consultant to the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD (TUAC)

There are lots of jokes about car salesmen. Many play on the idea of fraudulence and untrustworthiness. If governments place excessive faith in the invisible hand of markets and craft social policies and public service programmes that rely on commercial promise, they run the risk of being seen in the same manner: as policy sales people selling products, and certainly not practising good governance.

Over a year ago the World Bank’s World Development Report: “Making services work for poor people”, suggested that there was no difference between selling public services to “customers” and selling sandwiches and samosas at a street stall. How can this be? Is business performance a sound basis of trust in public services? Is winning trust about getting the message, any message, across right or having the right message in the first place?

The rejection by the French and Dutch of the EU constitution referenda may be evidence that more (simple) messaging will not necessarily get the people to buy into what governments are doing. No, people are far better informed and smarter than that. That is not to say that the people are right: as playwright Ibsen pointed out, majorities can turn out to be very wrong. Still, in democracies, broad public trust must be sought, won and maintained.

Not that governments should simply please public opinion; rather, in providing leadership, governments must hold genuine and visible social dialogue. For workers and their unions, this social dialogue has a special meaning, especially in OECD countries where governments accept the legitimacy of trade unions and the need to involve them in decisions that will affect working life or social and economic realities.

But there is a tension between the need for transparency and consultation with relevant stakeholders, and the fear that well-organised stakeholders will capture and slow down the process. Some governments have identified both the problem and the solution: consultation is about getting these messages understood by everyone else.

The OECD has occasionally posted draft guidelines on their website for public consultation, and has recently become much more open in its discussions with civil society but, overall, too many organisations, including the OECD, have a fascination with speed, and communicating post-decision messages. As one Workers’ Group delegate noted at a recent ILO meeting on public services: “From our side it’s as if you have, in our absence, charged us; in our absence heard the ‘evidence’; in our absence found us guilty; and then, in a magnanimous show of dialogue, have invited us to be part of the decision as to whether we should be hung, drawn or quartered. Where does this approach leave us?”

So, transparency and consultation, yes. Governments cannot insist that the groups it consults agree with its solution, but it is reasonable to want evidence that the group does represent the constituency it claims to; and that, when a group agrees a solution, it will go back to its constituency to seek endorsement. That level of trust between partners takes time to build, so that a history of conflictual relationships becomes a constructive one. Today, though, not only do workers see governments consulting civil society groups that have no real constituency to endorse them, but they see the government approaching their union only if there is bad news–job/wage cuts, outsourcing, privatisation–with the union being invited to help the government work out the precise conditions under which these decisions will be carried out. This is hardly a way to build long-term trust.

The problem for policymakers is unorganised interests, whether groups or individuals. How does one consult with them and gain their trust? How can coherent and inclusive policymaking be assured? E-government is part of the solution perhaps, but, apart from online access to public agencies, the risk is that e-government atomises people, with surveys replacing real consultation and endorsement. People may be in touch, but that does not make them informed. And it certainly does not make them organised, which puts ordinary people at a disadvantage. The OECD and several other institutions talk about the need for structures and infrastructures to build an enterprise economy, but governments must encourage and resource the infrastructure that builds associational life. And it must get out there and engage with those organised interests. Engagement–where all sides develop, not where one side ”informs”–is the true lifeblood of democracy.

If governments treat people as mere voting fodder, it is no wonder people stop voting and resort to self-protective ways of living: tax evasion, petty crime, cheating and ghettoisation become inevitable, rather than community-building, co-operation and contributing.

Government leaders may decry the breakdown of society, but why then push reforms that favour atomisation, only to spend tax dollars patching up the consequences? Take a recent OECD regulatory review of Russia, which took a close look at railways. This huge transport system is so crucial to many of Russia’s vast and outlying regions. Almost all proposals in the report focused on rail as a commercial enterprise, period. Certainly, it must become efficient and effective, and markets should play a role. But governments have to achieve much more. In many countries, railways play multiple roles: commercial freight and passenger transport; providing universal services to outlying areas; reducing commuter traffic and pollution; centres of apprenticeship training; employers of last resort for less skilled or disabled people, and so on. It is unreasonable to expect such a system to be competitive against, say, private truckers. The same could be said for many public services whose social value is pervasive and yet which are under pressure to behave according to narrow, market-defined criteria. Either we have to ensure that these non-market functions are carried out in some other socially collective way or we pay the subsidies needed for these roles to be fulfilled.

What makes people lose faith is when the government uses words like “modernisation” or “choice” to justify reform of public services. Such spin is widely seen as a smokescreen for other motives. People know what they have lost. Without association, they are too weak or too busy to do anything about it. Yet, history shows that while people may be prepared to lose or pay dearly to keep those functions for a time, they don’t like being treated as fools for long.


OECD (2005), OECD Reviews of Regulatory Reform: Russia-Building Rules for the Market, Paris

World Bank (2004), World Development Report: Making services work for poor people, Washington, DC

©OECD Observer No 252, November 2005

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