21 November 1997 - 23 November 1997

Public Trust in Government

Chair: The Rt Hon The Lord Howe of Aberavon CH QC

Jointly organised with the Kennedy School of Government

This Ditchley conference - our first in collaboration with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government - had been prompted by a sense that across much of the developed world there had been a secular diminution in the readiness of publics to think well of their governments, and to trust them for good service.

Our discussions brought out however that this phenomenon, for all its undoubted reality, varied more widely from one country to another, in both shape and weight, than first impressions suggested. In the United States, where it was perhaps at its most severe, there had been a long decline related particularly to central government (less markedly to local levels) and to the performance of incumbents rather than to basic weaknesses of system. In Britain, though the problem was in aggregate substantial, it was focused in large measure upon system; and on the evidence of opinion polls (for all that these attracted spirited expression of scepticism) the recent arrival of a new government had produced some renewal of confidence, if only because people welcomed the sense of their own power to impose change. Elsewhere in Europe and further afield the position seemed different again. In France, for example, and probably in Germany, expectations of the state’s role were always high, and there was less automatic suspicion of “big” government; and in smaller states we heard portrayed relatively high levels of confidence or at least of understanding tolerance of limitations.

What were the causes in those countries where the decline of trust seemed deep-seated? Various specific possibilities (in the United States, for example, Vietnam, Watergate, the end of the Cold War’s simplifying framework; or in Britain unemployment) failed to fit the phenomenon’s time-profile. Perhaps the increasing tendency for office-contenders to run “against” government contributed, as did a pattern of belief in bad quality of government as fashionably sophisticated wisdom. Swings in basic political philosophy towards more reliance on the private sector might also have impaired esteem for the public sector.

At least some of the causes, we believed, related to basic shifts within society. The “information revolution” partnered rising levels of public education, or at least public awareness, so as both to generate : higher expectations of effective service and to undermine past habits of deference to many sorts of established institution (though we noted, without altogether successfully diagnosing, the apparent fact that certain fields - in several countries the armed services and central banks, for instance - seemed to retain a degree of respect hardly explicable by superior flexibility or accountability). More and more people looked for convincing explanations of governmental actions, and for choice, and were no longer disposed to regard government as an arcane affair requiring expertise beyond their reach. In addition, increasing emphasis on a growing range of perceived individual rights sharpened demands.

We asked ourselves whether falling standards of conduct among elected leaders and public officials contributed to the problem. It was, we heard, far from sure that standards had in fact declined. Scandals were however certainly more vigorously exposed and widely publicised. We doubted whether sexual misbehaviour made a great difference, save where charges of hypocrisy were apt; but conspicuous cases of financial malpractice had done significant damage. Suspicion that money could buy immunity, access or favours, and that it flowed insidiously round every breakwater, was spreading; and in the United States concerns about the funding of political parties and campaigning heightened this.

There were features of political process that intensified public suspicion. Crude adversarialism - and perhaps closer focus upon personalities, as the scope for debate about basic ideologies faded - lowered esteem for both attackers and attacked; and it made honest candour and admission of difficulty, of necessary trade-off or of inability to deliver harder to sustain. Excessive promises, and implied claims of omnicompetence and freedom from weakness, led to a public disillusion perhaps heightened by the reality that across large areas of once-sovereign business national governments were more constrained by external factors or structures than in earlier times. Political parties - especially with the decline (media-driven?) of ward-level politics - were often less well connected to electorates than before; and the rise of special-interest or single-issue groups, many of them neither open nor balanced in their treatment of issues yet well able to seize attention, compounded the problem.

Did all this matter, and even if so, must we just shrug the shoulders? We felt sure that it did matter. Poor public grasp of governmental realities was bound in the long run to damage civic sense, participation and cooperation; more particularly, we were concerned that there could be a serious decline - already apparent, some suggested - in the quality of those accepting the burdens of public office if the risk/reward ratio worsened : that is, if demanding tasks both lacked public esteem and imposed harsher personal burdens (like lack of privacy) than other callings entailed.

A great deal of our discussion related to the media. Though we exhorted ourselves from time to time not to fall back on blaming the messenger, a strong undercurrent of disquiet persisted. Most of the public distrust of government related not to individuals’ direct experience but to what they saw and read. Television, it was vigorously contended, had in several countries become almost the main channel of governmental accountability; yet it produced an often-false immediacy of acquaintance with political leaders, and its characteristics - emphasis on the dramatic yet often trivial, and on brief spans of presentation - were poorly suited to public understanding of complex issues. Good news moreover was no news, and “exposure” often the key ambition. But our commentary could not escape the fact that most people seemed to want what the media now provided, and that there seemed no ready way to ensure that “bad” media behaviour suffered the key sanction, in an increasingly commercialised environment, of losing money.

So far, a recital of woe. But what could be done? There were, we thought, opportunities well worth pursuing. Though we doubted whether the actual performance of government was the prime problem, there was undoubted scope for improving the delivery of most services still being publicly provided, and for explaining effectively to service-receivers what could and could not be done; in Britain the Citizen’s Charter, though initially promoted by a government of declining general credibility, had had significant merit. Most though not all of us judged also that more could often be done by decentralisation of service and decision-making to improve both the reality and the perception of responsiveness; and more active mechanisms for consultation - strengthening the popular sense of “connectedness” to public authorities - could help, provided that the dangers were recognised of allowing energetically-vocal minorities to supplant responsible representative government. Perhaps governments ought to be more imaginative and pro-active in their use of new opportunities for communication, as for example the Internet

Might stronger and more explicit codes to define proper behaviour be useful? We heard of some promising experiments - for example to constrain the excesses of “negative” political campaigning in the United States, and through the establishment in Britain of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Several participants urged that stronger codes or agreements to shape media behaviour were not impossible - after all, almost every other profession was in some way code-constrained - though they could not easily be imposed from outside; we heard hints of some internal movement in this direction. More systematic professional training of journalists too might improve matters, though we were not sure what might be the commercial incentive to drive this.

Might new ways of strengthening accountability help? Some of us questioned whether this was really a key issue - publics wanted responsiveness more. Would greater openness about governmental behaviour and actions improve confidence? In principle it was impossible to say No; but government business amid complexity could not be conducted entirely in the open air, and greater exposure unaccompanied by other changes in the environment such as we had discussed risked merely providing more nourishment to hostile or trivialised presentation.

We discussed whether the law had much to offer in this arena. It was a necessary underpinning at many points, and we heard of usefully-significant changes - for example in France - to tackle particular systemic weaknesses. But it was in many situations a ponderous and perhaps even counter-productive instrument for reviving public confidence (sometimes, so a voice was heard, even part of the problem); and we came to doubt whether it could feature large in the armoury.

It would be wrong to end this account on a note of pessimism or impotence. An upbeat note recurring throughout was the theme that - especially if the problem of trust was squarely recognised as real and important - honest political leadership, infused by a sense of moral purpose and of public service, could hold power and I could make a difference. Ethical behaviour in government should rest ultimately upon that rather than on a vain attempt to cover everything by detailed rule-making; and evident advance in that regard could perhaps do as much to restore public confidence as any aggregate of procedural improvements. How was it to be furthered? That, no doubt, has to be for our “return” conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in November 1998.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Rt Hon The Lord Howe of Aberavon CH QC
Formerly Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister


Dr Maureen Mancuso

Chair, Department of Political Studies, University of Guelph, Ontario
Professor Peter H Russell
Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto
Dr David Zussman
President, Public Policy Forum, and Professor, Public Policy and Management, University of Ottawa

Monsieur Gérard Grunberg
Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques
Professor Philippe Martin
Member, Conseil d’Etat; Professor of Fiscal Studies, University of Paris

Mr Sadaaki Numata
Minister, Embassy of Japan, London

Dr Richard Grant
High Commissioner for New Zealand, London

Professor Drs Ruud Lubbers
Prime Minister 1982-94; Professor of Globalisation, Centre for Economic Research, Catholic University of Brabant at Tilburg

Mr Martin Bell OBE MP
Member of Parliament (Independent), Tatton
Professor Vernon Bogdanor FBA
Professor of Government, Oxford University
Mr Michael Buckley
Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration
Sir Robin Butler GCB CVO
Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service
Sir Robin Day
Television and radio journalist; author
Professor Anthony King
Professor of Government, University of Essex; Member, Committee on Standards in Public Life
Ms Bronwen Maddox
American Editor, The Times
Professor David Marquand
Principal, Mansfield College, Oxford; formerly Member of Parliament (Labour)
The Rt Hon The Lord Nolan PC
Chairman, Committee on Standards in Public Life 1994-97
The Rt Hon William Waldegrave
Formerly Secretary of State for Health and Chief Secretary to HM Treasury
The Rt Hon Baroness Williams of Crosby PC
Life Peer (Liberal Democrat); Director, Project Liberty, Harvard University
Mr Robert M Worcester
Chairman, MORI (Market and Opinion Research International)

Senator Susan Collins
United States Senator, Maine (Republican)
Dr Jeffrey A Eisenach
President and Co-Founder, Progress & Freedom Foundation, Washington DC
Mr Sam Fullwood III
Correspondent, Washington Bureau, The Los Angeles Times
Mayor Stephen Goldsmith
Mayor, City of Indianapolis/Marion County
The Honorable Steny Hoyer
Member, US House of Representatives, 4th Maryland District (Democrat)
Dr Elaine C Kamarck
Executive Director, Visions of Governance, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Dr David King
Associate Professor of Government, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
HE The Honorable Philip Lader
United States Ambassador to the Court of St James’s; formerly Deputy Chief of Staff, White House
Professor Robert Z Lawrence
Professor of International Trade and Investment, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Mr Kenneth Lipper
Chairman, Lipper & Company; formerly Deputy Mayor, City of New York
Professor Ernest R May
Charles Warren Professor of History, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Professor Richard E Neustadt
Douglas Dillon Professor of Government Emeritus, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Dr Pippa Norris
Associate Director (Research), The Shorenstein Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
The Honorable Joseph S Nye Jr
Dean, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; previously Chairman, National Intelligence Council and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs
The Honorable Paul A Volcker
Chairman, Commission in Public Service; formerly Chairman of the Board of Governors and CEO, Federal Reserve System
Ms Judy Woodruff
Prime Anchor and Senior Correspondent, CNN