Trust in public institutions, what do TINZ members say?

TINZ recently surveyed its members in order to inform its feedback to a research team from the OECD and Te Kawa Mataaho | New Zealand Public Service Commission. This team is carrying out a case study on the drivers of trust that people have in government institutions in New Zealand.

The objective of this study is to broaden and strengthen the evidence on trust in institutions in order to support government choices and therefore help to maintain high levels of public trust in New Zealand. The study is measuring “external institutional trust” or trust between people and public institutions.

We received a respectable 36 responses within just over a week. We asked for comments rather than box ticking resulting in varied and thoughtful answers. It’s hard to summarise them.

One general comment is that some respondents merge their feelings and thoughts about the Government in power, with the public service.

Trust affecting trends

We asked about the main social and economic trends that have affected their trust in New Zealand's public institutions over the past 5 years

This drew a diverse range of responses. Repeated were concerns about: 

  • inequality, housing and poverty
  • the COVID lockdown and response
  • public service leadership and accountability
  • climate change and environmental degradation
  • underinvestment in key services or infrastructure
  • debt and spending
  • social media growth and misinformation
  • corporate social responsibility
  • systemic racism and 
  • concerns about co-governance models.

Has trust shifted recently?

We asked our members if they trust New Zealand’s public institutions more than, less than or the same amount as 5 years ago, and what factors influenced their view

Remarkably half said their trust had declined. The other half were split between the same and increased with a wide diversity in the responses around why.

Among the reasons given for why trust has declined are 

  • that underperformance is accepted
  • that innovation is not wanted, just safe hands
  • there is too much failure to deliver
  • increasing disparity despite funding and services
  • too much spin doctoring in the public service
  • too much investment in the back office and not on the front line
  • too much influence of private companies
  • public institutions remained colonial and inflexible.

Survey respondents who have the same or more trust in New Zealand’s public institutions

  • feel there is gradual progress to address inequity 
  • are impressed by how civil servants managed the COVID crisis
  • like the overhauling of political donation laws, and 
  • approve of the continued support for the unique role played by some independent institutions such as OAG and Ombudsman.

Public Trust and COVID-19

We asked specifically about the COVID-19 emergency and response, whether it had changed the level of trust respondents have in New Zealand’s public institutions.

Of our respondents:

  • 12 expressed increased level of trust
  • 7 had a bob each way or felt their trust was the same
  • 14 said their trust had decreased

Those whose trust had increased talked about the strong, sustained and competent efforts of the public institutions, of the science based approach, with public interest and public health at the forefront. They talked about the positive recognition of the value of community leadership.

Those whose felt New Zealand's handing of the COVID-19 crisis had negatively affected trust in public institutions mentioned reasons including:

  • restrictions on human rights
  • variation in capability
  • a lack of clarity at times
  • poor handling of the MIQ and border restrictions
  • a mismatch between medical advice and actions taken
  • concern about autocratic decision making.
  • reduced Māori and Pacific access to education, health and support during this time.

A resonating theme was that the public sector response to COVID resulted in too much money and power.

Do public servants act with integrity?

We asked if the responders thought that public servants generally act with integrity, by acting honestly and trying to make the best decisions for the public? We asked about any specific situations related to public sector integrity that may have affected their view either positively or negatively

Public servants were given a general yes by 25/36 of respondents, but with a lot of caveats. Eight responders had a more negative view.

Yes, but.. Comments expressed concerns about:

  • a lack of assurance around MIQ handling
  • large works projects like roading and light rail, when they cost so much and take so long.
  • deadlines – the large reform agenda and high staff turnover makes good policy analysis difficult
  • bullying in the public sector and non transparent recruitment and appointment
  • the level of spin at senior and political levels, with underperformance not being addressed.

Some feel that ethics is an individual quality and that competence is a more serious issue.

Those who thought public servants don’t act with integrity commented about

  • focus on the Minister’s priorities rather than the best interests of the public
  • access to justice
  • the persistence of socio-economic inequity mainly amongst Maori and Pacific people
  • failure to address unethical behaviour when it is identified
  • concern about Three Waters reform.

Is public input adequate?

We asked if they thought that public institutions generally give enough time, information and consultation opportunities for people and organisations to advocate for their interests?

15 said yes - with quite a few with caveats - and 17 said no.

Those saying yes noted that consultation is part of the modus operandi limited by its nature to deadlines and with risk of inadequate stakeholder analysis. 

Fear of the social media mob drives a perception of lack of consultation.While there is generally adequate consultation, there is not always a desire or ability to act on what has come from consultation. Respondents feel that often decisions are made before consultations occur and that special interest groups with big budgets, connections or the loudest voices crowd out the diversity of views.

For those who thought there was not enough time or opportunity, their comments sat around a perception of

  • proposals being a done deal
  • a tick box mentality
  • too short timeframes, and 
  • failure to adequately consult marginalised people.

There was reflection that ineffective planning leads to consultation that just asks rather than communicates and actively seeks. This was raised again by another respondent who said that consultation tends to be one-way, not proper deliberation, interaction, generation of shared positions.

Several respondents reinforced the feeling that adequate consultation is not done especially with Treaty partners and minority groups. And that enough is not being done to reach the marginalised and to hear from other than the usual voices

Overall there is a desire to see government departments and local governments not only give more time for public consultation but to go further and involve citizens through opportunities for active participation.

Are public institutions fair and balanced

We asked if the respondents thought that public institutions generally tend to treat groups fairly, balancing the needs of groups against those of others in society to try to make the best overall decisions.

Of our respondents 15 said no and16 said yes, with 7 of those having a ‘but’. 

For this question several answers seemed to be referring to the Government in power rather than the public service.

The answers were very diverse. Some of the thoughts summarised are that

  • the government favours industry views and economic power groups over the general public.
  • the public sector treats the private sector as servants and holds too much ideology to consider the views of people who are conservative.
  • strong concern about inequality, treating symptoms not causes. This issue was also raised in relation to the view that there were silos.
  • drivers of their service delivery is more about meeting institutional mandates rather than realising the integrated nature of socio-economic inequities experienced by Maori and Pacific peoples - for example, a health issue is not just understood within clinical contexts, there may also be housing, education drivers that perpetuate what communities are experiencing - cross sectoral/integrated "ways of doing" needed
  • The problem of predetermination where a decision already made is justified during consultation.
  • concern that departments remain ignorant of true impact, obscured by social class issues and middle class entitlement.

We are happy to reflect the diversity of member views, but we are concerned about what it says about trust in public institutions. 

The overarching tenor of our responses is that the level of social licence given to the public service has been adversely impacted by a sustained spending and curtailing of citizen choice as a result of the COVID pandemic, as well as slow or little progress on significant social problems like climate change and inequality. 

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