16 December 2015
Yesterday’s post referred to dozens of articles by commentators and bloggers identifying slipping standards of integrity in the public sector. An inference is that we are on the slippery slope. Compromising on standards compromises the pillars of the state. If the foundations start eroding, so too will good government. A consequence will be a loss of trust. The outcome will be deteriorating public services and growing public dissatisfaction with agencies. A likelihood is that such developments will be manifest in a worsening placement in the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, soon to be released by Transparency International.
But the facts may well spoil those stories.
The latest Kiwis Count survey results released today show a marked strengthening of trust in government when respondents were thinking about their most recent experience of public services. The State Services Commission reports that there has been a 2 point increase in trust levels in the last 12 months – now at 79. This is a 12 point gain from the comparable figure when the Kiwis Count survey began in 2007. It is illustrated by 71% of respondents reporting that when last visiting an agency office, staff went the extra mile to help them get what they needed; 16% were neutral about their experience; and 12% answered negatively.
But New Zealanders don’t seem to have implicit trust in public services. Although the Kiwis Count measure of the perception of trust has increased from 29 in the 2007 survey to 43 now, this is 2 points lower than last year. We don’t seem to believe that others would get the same satisfaction levels from public services that we experience.
The survey results also showed a 1 point increase this year in the level of satisfaction with specified services. This included significant improvements in 21 of the 42 agency services measured.
Some informed observers have questioning whether New Zealand will be able to sustain its 2nd place rating on the Transparency International CPI – explicitly a perceptions-based assessment. If accurate, that flies in the face of eight years of continuing improvement in trust levels of respondents’ most recent experience of public services. When the Kiwis Count survey began in 2007 New Zealand shared top place on the CPI with Denmark and Finland. It would be ironical if, despite substantial increases in public trust since then, the perception of international experts who compile the CPI is that there are increased levels of corruption in those same agencies that go the extra mile for their users.
The potential problem is here is conflating service delivery – which is an important role for public servants – with the broader constitutional issues going to the political neutrality of the public service in a Westminster system. My own – albeit limited – contact with front-line public service delivery has been invariably positive; professional people doing things really well (and, without knowing the kinds of questions in the Kiwis Count survey, public servants may well include teachers, health care workers etc, as well as those in Government ministries and departments). Indices such as the Corruption Perceptions Index are not a proxy for the quality of service delivery. For those public servants positioned at the interface between political and administrative actors there is – I would suggest for a growing number – the direct experience, together with a wider perception of a growing politicisation of the public service. That may be the result of political advisers exceeding their authority, but equally it may reflect a culture shift towards a premium on responsive competence. This risks a move to what has been described as ‘promiscuous partisanship’. When we have government ministries setting up media management ‘war rooms’ this suggests that the balance between responsible and responsive competence has been lost. But because the public service is, quite rightly, perceived as achieving excellence in service delivery is no reason to be blinkered to the predations of politicization. And there is a problem.