Analysis: Plummeting Public Trust Is a Global Problem

Former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Paul Volcker Former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Paul Volcker Matt Rourke/AP

Paul A. Volcker already has an unmatched legacy of public service, but at the age of 86 he is tackling one more big problem: the reputation of government in the United States.

To solicit expert advice on this intractable problem, he convened about 50 professors and practitioners of government in late September at the grand old Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria. The ancient manor house is site of the long-running Salzburg Global Seminar series of meetings addressing economic, societal and other world issues.

Dozens of ideas were surfaced during the three days of talks, and many insights were gleaned about topics including the state of public management education, hiring in the federal government and public-private partnerships. The objective was to help the former Federal Reserve chairman frame an agenda for the Volcker Alliance he has recently created -- an organization whose small staff will seek allies, or partners, to help improve government and its repute. The staff is led by Shelley H. Metzenbaum, who was a top official at the Office of Management of Budget until earlier this year.

Overshadowing the gathering was deep concern about the continuing steep decline in citizens’ respect for their governments. Alan Murray, new president of the Pew Research Center, documented the decline in the United States with data showing that only about 20 percent of Americans trust the government to do the “right thing” most of the time.

It’s a worldwide problem. The view from abroad was starkly described by Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose 34 member countries span the globe. “The effects of the financial crisis have increased distrust in governments, to the point that we are witnessing a major fracture in the social contract,” said Gurria. “The authority of governments and their ability to deliver are in question. Public trust is one of the most precious assets that our societies have; it is the cornerstone of effective governance, the main ingredient to promote economic growth and social progress. Like never before, our countries are running dry of this precious asset. Like never before, our citizens have doubts about their government’s capacities to make the right decisions. And like never before, we need to roll up our sleeves and take the necessary measures to recover that confidence.”

Declining trust limits the latitude governments have to undertake new programs, to reform existing programs and even to shore up troubled economies. It also saps citizens’ willingness to pay taxes, delegates observed. Resistance to higher taxes is strong in the United States but even stronger in places like Greece -- where evasion and avoidance of relatively high tax levies are common.

So should the new Volcker Alliance make some sort of frontal attack on the issue of trust? When it came my turn to speak in Salzburg, I argued that public officials (and the media) don’t clearly convey public sector goals and achievements. Citizens’ regard for government might be improved if officials spoke more clearly about its missions -- fighting poverty, improving health, fostering science and innovation, battling corruption and crime by enforcing the laws, reducing pollution, securing the nation. In the interest of tempting more smart young people to work in government, leaders could also convey a sense that government is engaging emerging issues: education demands, water and energy shortages, immigration and assimilation challenges, and demographic trends that threaten social safety nets and raise generational equity issues.

For all his stature, though, Volcker probably cannot command a large enough stage to directly influence public opinion about government. Most delegates said the group should focus on improving execution of existing programs. That was clearly Volcker’s instinct as well -- he emphasized Thomas Edison’s aphorism: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Ideas for improving execution of the laws were manifold. One, offered by a participant who served as a senior staff member for several senators during her 25-year career, would seek a “front-end” fix by including best-practice provisions in laws creating new programs or fixing old ones. The right kinds of guidance for differing kinds of laws and programs could be identified through academic research, she suggested.

Although there were few technologists in the group, many delegates observed that government is running far behind the private sector in providing online services that fully satisfy users. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Carla Hills, who also served as U.S. trade representative, cited United Airlines’ practice of asking fliers for immediate feedback on their satisfaction, and its use of that data to improve service. Some state and local governments are similarly collecting citizens’ reactions. Federal agencies can find it considerably more difficult to solicit such feedback, since information collection initiatives are strictly regulated under the Paperwork Reduction Act.

Still, technology solutions can clearly improve citizens’ experience with government. A terrific example involving the Boston public school system  was described by Catherine Bracy, an executive with Code for America, whose purpose is to help the public sector find high-tech solutions. Boston officials moved to a school-choice policy, but cloaked their system in such dense bureaucratese that parents could not easily make well-informed choices. Bracy’s colleagues devised a website that made school comparisons and choices much easier. About half  the city’s parents now use the web service, and without question it has improved their interactions with government.

So that is an example of improving performance, which Volcker and others see as essential to improving trust. Sir Michael Barber, who was in effect the British government’s chief performance officer as head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit from 2001 to 2005, said that while most politicians think the relative importance of policy and implementation is 90-to-10, in reality it’s the reverse. As many OMB-led efforts to boost performance have shown, it’s impossible to simultaneously improve thousands of federal programs, and Volcker seems intent on focusing on a few important activities. One of particular interest to him is the poorly organized federal approach to financial regulation, now in the hands of at least half a dozen agencies.

Volcker’s new effort is called an alliance because its success will depend on creating a network of people and institutions that support his essential goals. His name is a valuable commodity, really a brand, and his reputation so good that many are likely to respond to his call. At the conference, participants recognized the value of the Volcker name, and the need to use it with care. Several suggested such ideas as a “Volcker Index” of international corruption and a “Volcker Prize” for meritorious activities.

The alliance may well sponsor efforts to collect and disseminate best practices across a variety of government activities. One promising suggestion along these lines was focused on developing more public-private partnerships to address societal needs. In particular, some participants said the alliance could focus on the kinds of partnerships gaining traction here and abroad to finance, construct and operate major infrastructure projects. Sarah R. Wartell, president of the Urban Institute was among them, saying that government by itself will never find enough money to meet the country’s infrastructure needs.

Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University and a consultant to Volcker, suggested the alliance sponsor the creation of a database bringing together the best academic research on public management. It’s surprising that such an aggregation doesn’t exist, and its absence may suggest a weakness of the public administration academic world. Indeed, the Volcker gathering witnessed substantial hand-wringing about the state of public administration education, its lost prominence at the nation’s leading universities, and the field’s inability to attract top students. More young people are interested in “public policy” than in “public administration,” participants said. Moreover, many are less inclined to put their graduate education to work in government than in nonprofits they believe can be more effective in promoting societal change.

Among leading deans and professors at the meeting were Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University,  Donald F. Kettl of the University of Maryland, Thomas Kolditz of the Yale School of Management, Steve Kelman of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, John Graham of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Susan L. Marquis of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, Cathy E. Minehan of the Simmons College School of Management and James Steinberg of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.

As the Salzburg meeting came to a close, Volcker suggested that the alliance’s goal, and perhaps its slogan, should be to “Make Government Work Better.” He talked about reorganizing where needed, measuring performance against goals, developing public-private partnerships, and helping with education and research. But a formal statement of his organization’s plan of action awaits more work by him and his advisers. One can hope that this distinguished man’s work to improve government’s performance and reputation don’t end up like the efforts of Russian reformer Viktor Chernomyrdin -- the prime minister who British chief performance officer Barber quoted as saying: “We tried to do better, but everything turned out as usual.”

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