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The 4 Cs to More Ethical, Transparent, and Accountable Public Administrations

Las 4 C necesarias para lograr administraciones públicas más éticas, transparentes y que rinden cuentas

Paul Maassen|

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that despite a strong global economy and near full employment, citizens don’t trust their governments. This result, seen across other studies, is a clear wake-up call for institutions to embrace a new way of effectively building trust. By opening their doors to public input and oversight, we know that governments are more likely to be effective and credible. A mere technical fix will not be enough, it is rather about changing the culture of government, the DNA of decision making. But, with declining trust in institutions, liberal democracy at threat, and rising populism, we need these challenges to be faced head-on. We often talk about the role of politicians in fixing the trust deficit, but what can bureaucracies do?

A few months back, I had the opportunity to speak at the European Public Administration Network (EUPAN) Directors General Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, about opportunities for stronger engagement between public administrations, civil society and citizens directly. The Director Generals present stressed a shared responsibility to make their administrations stronger – more ethical, transparent and accountable. They emphasized that the basis for trust is citizens’ satisfaction with the delivery and quality of public services. 

Paul Maassen, OGP’s Chief of Country Support, speaks on a panel about the role of trust, AI, and ethics in public administration at the 2019 EUPAN DG Meeting in Helsinki, Finland.

As an action-driven platform, OGP encourages its 78 national members and growing number of local members to link global conversations with domestic dialogue and action. Public administrations should be listening to citizens, making use of their knowledge and responding to their feedback by showing the concrete results of their engagement. Here are four ways – or rather the four Cs –  public administrations can build trust, partnerships, and accountability:

  1. Communicate better, and remember that civil servants are citizens too. 
    • Find opportunities to not be a faceless bureaucracy and to use low-tech solutions to engage citizens.
    • Finland communicates with citizens through plain language, while the Dutch public administration calls people who submit freedom of information requests. Such informal approaches lead to fewer complaints, lower overall costs and shorter lead times – improving public trust! That’s how simple it can be.
  2. Consult better, but less often.
    • Consultation is what you do when you need feedback, when you’re looking for ideas, when you want technical inputs or public buy-in. Think carefully about what you’re looking to get out of it, and who you need to reach. The method has to match the goal. Some governments in OGP, including Canada and the Netherlands, have created internal expertise centers that help design appropriate consultations – and do it in a way that appeals to both stakeholders and bureaucrats because it is in everyone’s interest.
    • Consult on topics citizens care about. In Estonia, following a wave of citizen protests in response to a major party finance scandal, citizens crowd-sourced, prioritized and voted on key policy proposals to tackle the roots of the problem. This online and offline deliberation and voting method eventually led to a permanent Citizen Initiative Portal, and numerous citizen assemblies on the future of aging, sustainable forestry and issues of a shrinking population.
  3. Contract better.
    • Proactively disclosing information related to procurement tenders and contracts plays an important role in holding government officials to account, as well as incentivizing competition. This ultimately strengthens trust in public administration.  
    • In Ukraine, when oligarchs had captured the public contracting process, tech-savvy activists and government reformers created the open contracting online platform ProZorro. The platform not only saved money, but also created trust and a level playing field for the private sector, raising the number of bidders and government suppliers. In Slovakia, procurement contracts are only valid if they’re published online. Almost all OGP members use the OGP platform to open up contracting.
  4. Code better.
    • Most governments are lagging behind in harnessing the power of digital tools, leading to an inability to make good decisions in the face of change and uncertainty.  Evidence shows that even in 2020 democracies are the target of foreign online disinformation campaigns.
    • We are seeing some new approaches to digital governance, such as France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand committing to improving the accountability of government use of AI & algorithms that impact our lives, Australia using deliberative approaches to build an ethical framework on AI or Canada committing to strengthen electoral laws to increase transparency around how voters are targeted by traditional and online and advertising. 

Graphic Recording of EUPAN DG Meeting Panel on The Role of, Trust, AI, and Ethics in Public Admin
Illustration by Linda Saukko Rauta

Quality public services are critical to the lives of citizens and ensuring their provision is an essential function of governments. Experience and evidence have however shown that this is not the government’s role alone, but that citizens and civil society also have an important part to play in improving and delivering public services and achieving social outcomes. Governments need to open up to public input and oversight, and they need to do it in a meaningful way, well designed, with real willingness to listen and change, on topics citizens care about. 

Consultation is an art.  It takes time to get this right – it won’t all click into place overnight.  But it could not be more important than today. Only real evidence, real dialogue, and real action that will make a difference in people’s lives can combat the rise of populism and distrust.



The featured illustration was created by Linda Saukko Rauta.

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