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Vote of confidence

OECD Observer

“Good governance is the basis of all OECD activities, which is hardly surprising given that it is essential for all economic and social progress.” These remarks by Secretary-General Donald J. Johnston set the tone for a ministerial meeting on Strengthening Trust in Government, hosted by the Netherlands in Rotterdam on 28 November.

Improving performance and building public trust in government drove the discussions at that meeting and are the focus of this edition. Citizens may want more democracy, but are governments doing enough to return that vote of confidence?

Many governments have been modernising, but as Alexander Pechtold, the Dutch minister for government reform and chair of the ministerial meeting, points out in his introduction, it is far from certain that the relationship between citizens and government has improved. Trust is not a luxury, but a cornerstone of all healthy democracies, Mr Pechtold warns.

Despite weakening trust, Odile Sallard, who heads the OECD’s Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate, argues that citizens’ expectations of their governments are rising, especially in the wake of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Enhancing government performance may not be enough to win full confidence, but results do matter, nonetheless. That is why countries have been moving from controlling how resources are spent towards looking at what has actually been achieved, she writes.

OECD public government expert, Teresa Curristine, explains in her article how governments have modernised their accountability and control procedures, and reformed the ways in which they operate large and complex public services. Much has been accomplished, but reforms have by no means run their course, particularly as many politicians still do not commonly use performance measures in decision-making, she finds. However, Ms Curristine also warns that budget and set procedures are not everything, and good policies and judgement are also vital for garnering public trust.

The OECD, meanwhile, plans to step up its efforts to help governments with reform, notably with a new project dubbed “Management in Government: Comparative Country Data”. This will bring together data and experience from across the OECD on good government and efficient public services, leading to an annual report by 2009. Details are on page 13.

Government experience in market-based reforms, from privatisation to outsourcing, is one area that will be monitored with interest. In “When governments go shopping”, we look at some of the advantages and pitfalls of these approaches. For instance, market mechanisms can help governments deliver public services at low cost, but they require dedicated resources and expertise. Moreover, the gains from some public/private partnership initiatives have been limited. Again, results matter.

But can better performance earn public trust? Not unless more is done to tackle corruption, says Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International, in our interview on page 16. Governments may be becoming more open and accountable, with the spread of freedom of information laws, for instance. But the public is intolerant of corruption, Mr Eigen says, and even developed country governments have more to do to clean up their acts.

For Mike Waghorne, a public services expert and trade union consultant, online consultation does not replace real dialogue with properly organised accountable stakeholders. In “Selling a fast one”, he argues that e-government may inform people, but it risks atomising them, too.

Improving dialogue is also a concern for Adriaan Buyserd and Lampros Kontogeorgos, two graduates studying international public administration who attended the so-called student’s summit alongside the November ministerial meeting. Governments, they say, could rebuild public trust by establishing an “environment of certainty and stability” that encourages citizens to take responsibility for their own lives. However, this may mean more government, not less, though in new ways that will make it clear “that the elected government remains the vehicle for the promotion of the collective good.”


Mr Johnston’s full speech to the ministerial meeting and the Chair’s statement are available at

©OECD Observer No 252/253, November 2005

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