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A Gathering of High-Income Countries to Address Declining Trust in Government

andMunyema Hasan|

A few weeks ago, OGP began a sustained campaign on rebuilding trust in government, kicking it off with an event at UNGA where we launched Trust: The Fight to Win it Back, and where leaders from government and civil society articulated their vision on rebuilding trust. A key finding as part of our work on this topic was identifying that low levels of public trust are especially pronounced in high-income countries. The Edelman Barometer, OECD and Omidyar Network’s recent research also note that the sentiment of heightened distrust in institutions is more pronounced in Western-style democracies.

During the OGP Global Summit in Paris last year, I met with the former Dutch Minister of Interior, Ronald Plasterk, where we talked about this problem at length, discussing that there would be merit in getting together and sharing perspectives and experiences on this common challenge. To its credit, the Netherlands followed through and hosted a gathering of high-income countries in the Hague a week ago, to unpack the drivers of declining trust and discuss how open government could potentially be a solution to rebuilding trust in their contexts.

Recent political events sweeping democratic strongholds around the world, notably in established Western democracies, reflect a deep loss of citizen trust in government. Some populist leaders have stoked this underlying distrust to call for a wholesale rejection of the system and elites, presenting themselves as the true representative of the people, and, in some cases, asking to hand power to a strong leader who can stand up to elites and work for citizens.  The implications of this crisis of trust are far-reaching, threatening the very foundation of democracy.

In the room, we had a gathering of talented and committed government and civil society reformers  – from Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, South Korea, New Zealand and the United Kingdom – to discuss what could be driving this distrust, but most importantly hear their stories from the frontlines of engaging with citizens on where the opportunities and challenges lie.

Two key challenges stood out: diminishing social cohesion and the need to pay attention to inclusive and deliberative models of governance, and changing public expectations for more spontaneous, responsive governments. First, high-income countries have been facing unique challenges in the context of globalization, including rising inequality and stagnant wages, refugee crises and immigration, ageing populations and youth unemployment. As a result of these challenges, people feel left behind or worse off – fueling a sense of injustice, the erosion of cultural identity, and the threat of terrorism, fueled also by xenophobia.

Public debates on how to address these problems are highly polarized and partisan. It’s hard to entertain diverse points of view, making it difficult to voice nuance and find compromise. Citizens not only feel left behind, but feel powerless, without any meaningful voice or control of government; governed by elites who they feel are living in cocoons disconnected from citizen concerns and unresponsive to their needs.

In this context, how do we ensure that citizens feel a genuine sense of voice and empowerment?  How do we make sure government is not just encouraging participation but also being inclusive? Open government can potentially address this challenge by empowering citizen voices in policymaking and reaching out to the marginalized. This is where “business as usual” needs to change, and traditional participation and consultation mechanisms need a rethink. In an age of technological advancement and hyperconnectivity, the nature and expectations surrounding democratic participation are changing. People don’t just want to have their say during elections, or engage in public comment periods on policies and legislation. They want to have spontaneous, creative ways to make their voices heard and shape policies in areas that they care about most.

Participants in the room shared innovative models and approaches to participation that could help approach this challenge. Our Canadian colleagues introduced us to deliberative processes of engaging with citizens, which allow communities to debate pros and cons of a policy reform and understand trade-offs, while giving citizens a genuine voice in challenging decisions. The UK’s Brexit Citizen Assembly described how bringing together a cross-section of representative citizenry who voted very differently on Brexit could lead to points of compromise. Representatives from Finland showcased how they are involving the young and elderly in policymaking – highlighting the practical approaches you can adopt to not just engage more citizens in policymaking, but to also include the most vulnerable and marginalized in that public dialogue. Our Italian colleagues spoke about OpenGovWeek, where they employed a bottom-up approach, allowing a wide variety of actors to “self-select” and proactively organize events on open government around the country. It had the effect of raising awareness and mainstreaming the idea of open government to as many citizens as possible.

Second, many of the countries represented in the room have made impressive advances in government transparency facilitated by digital technologies, and also in participatory approaches to governance. Frans Timmermans, First Vice President of the European Commission, and Ivan Krastev, a prominent intellectual, both noted in the essays they wrote for Trust: The Fight to Win it Back, that as a result of these advances people not only have higher expectations of government to be more transparent, but also higher expectations for government to perform. So governments are facing greater public scrutiny than ever, and this can sometimes perversely lower public trust – at least in the immediate term.

This tells us that transparency and participatory projects are not silver bullets. People don’t just want information or their voice to be heard, they want to see responsive government and spontaneous change. Without visible change, public trust and skepticism in government may become intensified as participatory approaches may come across as a box ticking exercise. So governments need to close the feedback loop by responding to citizens’ voices and involving them in monitoring government activities, with the ultimate goal of showing results.

In South Korea, Seoul citizens have the option of voting for policies and proposals on their mobile phones using a smartphone app, M-Voting. There have been at least 154 cases in which M-Voting results have contributed to the formation and implementation of policies. For example, the government implemented a set of incentives for encouraging energy conservation, after these incentives underwent the M-Voting process and prevailed. In the Netherlands, the FAIR Tracks program has put procedural fairness front and center of their citizen engagement approach, and this has led to an average reduction of citizens objecting to government decisions by 50-60%, a reduction of administrative procedures time by 37%, and improvements in citizen satisfaction by 40%.

We have to recognize that business as usual needs to change. These examples highlight how OGP reformers are experimenting with open government approaches that are more deliberative and inclusive by design, redefining citizen participation, and showing rapid results.  They exemplify genuine citizen empowerment – beyond transparency and pro-forma consultation- to responsiveness by government to that input, and to government accountability – that spans the feedback loop which we would hypothesize is needed to rebuild trust. But we need more of these initiatives to go beyond specific issue areas or sectors so they become the norm across the partnership.

Trust is not only an outcome or an indicator of government performance, but an input to effective policymaking. It’s a virtuous cycle – you need citizens’ trust and genuine participation to develop and implement effective public policies, and successful outcomes of those policies will in turn improve trust.

Sanjay Pradhan, CEO, Open Government Partnership
Munyema Hasan, Manager – KLIC Program

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