Headlines: October 15th, 1997

Trust in the public service in Britain has slumped to an all time low. This is the conclusion drawn from a report, “Planning for Social Change 1997”, published by the Henley Centre, the forecasting organisation. The annual survey of 2000 consumers in the UK shows that the percentage of people who have ‘ a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in the civil service, local councils and the police has gone down steeply. This contrasts sharply with the finding that four in five people trust food manufacturers such as Heinz and Kelloggs to be honest and fair. The findings are causing concern because the success of public organisations depends as much on public support as on being effective and efficient.The survey shows that trust and faith in the civil service is at 14%, down from 48%, in the police 58%, down from 83% and in local councils 24%. There is broad support for the figures from other sources. A Mori poll conducted in April found that only 25% of people expected civil servants to tell the truth, while the figure for the police was 62%. Figures published earlier this month by the Home Office show an 11% rise in the number of substantiated complaints compared to the previous year. A Mori poll for the Local Government Association in February found that only 53% of people were satisfied with the way councils are doing their job.

Mistrust, and in some cases disillusionment, with public services is not confined to Britain. The United States and other countries are experiencing similar declining levels of confidence. Whether public service organisations are less trust worthy is a difficult question to answer. Part of the problem is certainly the public perception which is influenced by isolated cases of deceitful behaviour which colour judgement. The Scott Inquiry into Arms to Iraq severely damaged the image of the civil service. The reputation of the police has been dented by revelations in cases where appeals against conviction have been upheld.

The significance of the Henley Centre findings is not that the majority of people distrust public servants, but that the decline in trust levels has been so steep and that confidence is at such a low ebb. The new figures add urgency to the efforts that are being made to address the issue of public confidence. Public Service Minister, David Clark is well aware of the gap between people and government and he is tackling both the reality and the public perception. In outlining the content of the forthcoming White Paper on ‘Government of the Future’ he told the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in July: “We can realise the full potential of public services by restoring public service values and integrity and demonstrating our commitment to them.” He also explained that he was working closely with Departments to answer radical questions including: “What steps are we taking to restore the people’s trust in Government and public bodies?”

A Home Office spokesperson said: All Chief Constables are looking to form good relationships with the community.” He also pointed out that the 22,500 commendations received by the police in the 12 months up to March 1997 was two and a half time greater than the number of complaints.

Mark Oakes of the Local Government Association said: We believe the situation in local government is improving, but there is no complacency. We realise that we cannot succeed without public support. Restoring confidence is one of our greatest challenges and we don’t intend to rest on our laurels.”

It will be a long haul for public services to emulate the example of Kelloggs, trusted by 83%, and Heinz, trusted by 81%. Perhaps one factor which is missing from the plethora of performance indicators which pour out of public bodies is how far people trust them. There are sufficient benchmarks around now to measure progress. The inclusion of a ‘trust’ indicator would focus more attention on the customer, which is what Kellogs and Heinz do well. An indicator would have a knock on effect, because ‘what gets measured gets done’.