The Trust Issue

Blavatnik School of Government ReviewThe Blavatnik School of Government (http://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk) is a relatively new school at Oxford University, focusing on global public policy. In the August 2016 first edition of their first journal entitled The Government Review, the school assembled a series of papers dealing with The Trust Issue with governments. Dean Ngaire Woods’ introduction of the issue is blunt and direct:

“In 2016, governments are in the firing line. Their populations suspect them of accelerating globalization for the benefit of the few, letting trade drive away jobs, and encouraging immigration so as to provide cheaper labour and to fill skills-gaps without having to invest in training. As a result, the ‘anti-government,’ ‘anti-expert,’ ‘anti-immigration’ movements are rapidly gaining support. The Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, the Presidential run of Donald Trump in the United States and the Five Star movement in Italy are but three examples.”

The issue is organized into four sections: Trust and Governance, Global Case Studies, Strategies and Insights, and Strategies for Innovation.

The Trust and Governance section has three papers with ominous titles: Building Trust in Government, Corruption and the Quality of Government, and Practitioner Interview. Two McKinsey partners, Bjarne Corydon and Andrew Grant, open their paper stating that trust in government is lower than trust in non-governmental entities, business and the media. They recommend that governments develop better insights into how their citizens’ lives are changing. They also recommend using technology like data analytics and forecasting for government to determine the potential impact of an intervention before actually implementing it. Technology and cross-agency communication allows some governments to enhance their models for providing services. Lastly, technology also offers the potential to enhance transparency and accountability through the online publication of budgets and software that allows the viewer to delete or reduce an item and see how that impacts local citizenry.

The Blavatnik School’s Professor Bo Rothstein authors Corruption and Quality of Government and opens with the statement that a government with no corruption is like a country with no crime. He further adds that most studies show that 75 percent of the world’s population live in countries with medium to high levels of government corruption and those problems are not just in Communist countries or countries in the developing world. He recommends that modern leaders need to cultivate a concept of acting with neutrality for government appointees. However, most leaders are failing to do this and Rothstein adds that the electorates in numerous countries are frequently re-electing corrupt politicians rather than punishing them.

Global Case Studies include studies from the U.K., China and Malaysia.

Strategy and Insights leads off with an article entitled Escape the Fragility Trap. Author Rafat Ali Al-Akhali, Minister of Youth and Sports in Yemen and a Blavatnik Fellow of Practice, writes that despite a focus over the past decade on providing aid to countries that are deemed fragile and conflict affected, the number of countries on the list has increased from 28 to 41. Even worse, half of the world’s poor are expected to live in these countries by 2030. One of the characteristics of these countries is a weak civil service and ineffective public sector. Governments in these countries need to set realistic expectations for improvements as well as reasonable timelines. Al-Akhali writes that some studies estimate it takes between 17-41 years to achieve a rule of law that is stable. He adds that “one size does not fit all” and agencies and foundations that attempt to help must tailor their programs to the local environment.

Professor Stefan Dercon’s The Crisis after the Crisis: Syria’s Brain Drain writes about the flight of five million Syrian refugees and how their education varies based on location. Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon have the same educational attainment as pre-crisis Syrians. Refugees in Europe have a higher education level and a higher percentage of adult males. A September 2015 survey shows that 47% of Syrian adult refugees in Europe are university educated and another 47% have a secondary education. Europe has pulled as many as half of the university educated Syrians from the country. Professor Dercon writes that this is no surprise given what it costs for a refugee to reach Europe and that most of those who can afford to pay for transportation are likely to have a college education. He further writes that the neighboring countries in the Middle East need to find ways to provide an education to the Syrian refugees in their midst otherwise, there is likely to be a permanent brain drain in Syria.

Strategies for Innovation was the toughest section for me to read because I believe the political environment in the U.S would leave little room for most of these ideals to be implemented ethically. Using Behavioral Insights to Rethink Policy by Princeton Professor Eldar Shafir suggests that good psychology requires that governments need to gauge how people think about a problem, what propels them to act the way that they do, and what stops them from doing the right things. Pilot programs are a good way to gain insight into what causes people to act or react positively or negatively. Lecturing people who fail to act never works; policy makers need to design policies that facilitate the desired action.

Dr. Elizabeth Linos, VP and Head of Research at BIT North America, suggests in Using Behavioral Science to Improve the Government Workforce that we can use behavioral science tools to improve the service delivery of the government workforce. Dr. Linos acknowledges that there are multiple steps in the recruitment process and some are limited by union rules. Nonetheless, if we cannot attract the right people for government positions, it will be difficult to incentivize and motivate them. Studies have shown that increasing contact with beneficiaries of programs can motivate staff. Additionally, providing feedback to frontline staff on how they perform in relationship to their peers is motivational as well. Getting workers to share information across department and party lines is fairly effective as well.

Geoff Mulgan, CEO at U.K. foundation Nesta, authored Government as Collective Intelligence. His recommendations for governments to use tools and data to collectively improve the outcomes for their citizens depends on governments being honest and transparent, and not focused on the agenda of the political party in power. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention that until the end when he suggests that collaborating with citizens is better than using the technologies to support a “Big Brother” form of government. I’m not sure that our Executive branch in the U.S. has operated impartially since the 1980s or earlier. The last three administrations have pushed their agendas over a goal of improving the country for the good of everyone. One federal agency has a process that allows it to do anything that it wants to do if it assembles a panel of commenters who cannot agree on the proposed regulation. This process leaves little doubt as to the outcome; it’s whatever the party in charge wants it to be as long as it can survive legal challenges which are seldom resolved in the favor of the challenger.

Empowering Citizens to Co-Create Policy, written by Professor Victor Bekkers of Rotterdam University, addresses ways in which governments can work with citizens to provide programs that allow for flexibility in services and/or benefits. In the Netherlands, some programs allow parents of children with mental health issues to utilize payments to treat their children in ways tailored to the individual needs of the child. According to Bekkers, the willingness of the government to do this is linked to the levels of risk averseness of administrative culture. The willingness of citizens to participate is usually linked to their level of education and wealth with those more educated and more prosperous usually willing to engage with the government. He has developed four scenarios regarding co-creation that relate to a high or low participation willingness by citizens and government. High willingness from both creates a “Let’s dance” scenario while low willingness from both creates the “wasteland” scenario. Governments thinking of co-creating should work to avoid the wastelands and move citizen and administrator willingness to the Let’s Dance scenario.

Professor Jeffrey Liebman from the Harvard Kennedy School authored ‘Pay for Success’ in the U.K. and U.S. Instead of paying directly for services, governments using these programs pay based on outcomes based on the type of program being administered. Because there are few providers who can wait multiple years to be paid by the government, these types of programs typically require a lender who provides the operating cash needed in return for the lion’s share of the revenues when received. These programs help governments reorient their programs toward prevention, provide multi-year outcomes focused partnerships with social service providers, and help governments learn which programs work without paying for those that do not work. Governments will benefit from these types of programs if they select an area where the benefits from improved outcomes re-engineering are very large.

The Trust Issue was a worthwhile read. Unfortunately, given the current political environment in the United States and the unwillingness of politicians to collaborate on any of the toughest challenges (Medicare, Social Security, ACA, Defense Spending, Infrastructure Spending, balancing the budget, etc.), I am not optimistic that many of the strategic innovations recommended will get implemented at the federal level any time soon. I think Dean Woods’ description of the global distrust of many governments by their citizens is accurate. The sad part is that career politicians are apt to pay little attention if they’re re-elected, regardless of the margin.

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