Rebuilding Public Trust

By Timothy B. Clark

November 15, 2013

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. 

For advice on this intractable problem, he convened about 50 practitioners and professors of government in late September at the grand old Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria, site of the long-running Salzburg Global Seminars on world issues. 

Dozens of ideas surfaced during the three days of talks aimed at helping the former Federal Reserve chairman frame an agenda for the Volcker Alliance he has recently created—an organization whose small staff will seek 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. A stark worldwide view was offered  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.” 

Should the new Volcker Alliance make some sort of frontal attack on the issue of trust? At the Salzburg forum, I suggested
that citizens’ regard for government might be improved if public officials and influencers 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. But for all his stature, 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. This was 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 former Senate staffer suggested a “front-end” fix: including best-practice implementation provisions in laws creating new programs or fixing old ones. 

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. Federal agencies can find it considerably more difficult to solicit such feedback, since information collection initiatives are strictly regulated
under the Paperwork Reduction Act.

Clearly, technology solutions can work to great effect, as demonstrated in Boston’s public school choice program. Boston officials cloaked their system in such dense bureaucratese that parents could not easily make well-informed choices. Then a nonprofit called Code for America dispatched a team to invent 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.

That’s one example of improving performance, which Volcker and others see as essential to improving trust. Sir Michael Barber, who was the British government’s chief performance officer 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. 

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. Many are likely to respond to his call. 

The alliance may lead efforts to collect and disseminate best practices across a variety of government activities. One suggestion focused on developing models for public-private partnerships to address societal needs, including the kinds of partnerships gaining traction here and abroad to finance, construct and operate major infrastructure projects. The Alliance might also support new research, and aggregation of existing research, about public administration best practices, suggested academic leaders who came to Salzburg. 

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, in particular among federal agencies responsible for oversight of financial institutions; measuring performance against goals; developing public-private partnerships; and helping with education and research. One can hope that this distinguished man’s work to improve government’s performance and reputation meets with the success it deserves. 

By Timothy B. Clark

November 15, 2013