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Considering how to achieve responsiveness in current models of government

· Emily Clifford,Governance,Government,Analysis

Traditionally, governments represent their constituents by being custodians of public welfare - governing 'for the good of all' without requiring public mandate beyond the election for each decision taken. However, the public are increasingly questioning issues such as the judgement of ‘good’ and ‘all’ opposing government decisions including involvement in foreign wars, women's rights, the ongoing climate policy debate and border defence and refugee rights through vocal public protest. The recent Australian National University election study reported a pattern of declining citizen trust in the political system since 2007, illustrating “trust in government has reached its lowest level on record, with just 25 per cent believing people in government can be trusted”.[1]

In 2020, while still in the depths of a global pandemic and during a time of rising social unrest, Deloitte US published an online article titled ‘Creating the government of the future’ that sought the ways in which to answer the complex question about how contemporary governments can become ‘more anticipatory, human centred, and resilient’. While the question is considered through a United States government lens, it has lessons that can be applied in an Australian context, particularly during a crucial period in history (that is, in the post COVID-19 climate) where the relationship between government and people is dramatically changing at a global level.

The article suggests amongst the current flaws in our systems that have historically been resistant to change, that the current status quo within government and other institutions is no longer sustainable and now faces insurmountable pressure to change in significant areas. These include:

  1. The ways in which government operates
  2. How government serves citizens
  3. How workforces are managed
  4. How policy gets made 

The article suggests embracing a new way of governance that realises the importance of a human centric design that will reduce the risk of governments becoming irrelevant and disdained. In particular, the adoption of advanced technologies, emphasis on greater equality and representation in the workforce, greater integration of digital processes for citizen-government interactions and an increased acceptance of citizens contributing to policy making, through modern methods of inclusive government. Essentially, while acknowledging that the relationship between citizens and government is complex, if governments were more committed to work towards understanding how to build stronger, more transparent and inclusive relationships with citizens, they would be able to bolster their legitimacy by natural consequence.

Achieving the article’s expectations of such a government will indeed be difficult. Australians are increasingly vocal, through mainstream and social media, over concerns with policies towards asylum seekers, calls for greater recognition of Indigenous Australians and with protests against sexual violence and inequality. The public appear to be less accepting of paternalistic government decision making and are increasingly voting for issues rather than for parties – which is complicated by the two leading political parties in Australia mixing issues in a way that people may have to sacrifice one issue they are passionate about for another as well as a lack in some cases of a clear policy direction on a number of these key issues from the parties themselves.

In addition, the public are troubled by party instability and fragile leadership within the Federal Government, which is contributing to declining belief in the ability of politicians and governments to make decisions on behalf of citizens and doing so with honesty and accountability. The recent rape allegations within the highest levels of government have contributed to growing public outrage against politicians and entrenched, patriarchal power structures. This decline in political trust is beginning to bleed over into deteriorating public confidence in key institutions such as the State and Federal police, community services and health care organisations.

Instead of asking government to be more human, as Deloitte’s article suggests, we could seek government (including institutions) to first be more responsive to both change and its citizens. There has been a growing tendency for governments to defer decisions back to the public, most obviously through the marriage equality referendum. If the general public continued to push for involvement in such issues, or for example to ensure major parties allow their members to vote on their conscience (and therefore to be more directly accountable to their constituent) and where effective, trustworthy and inexpensive systems could be developed to address this, we could have a new system of somewhat devolved power. Change will need to be very much 'from the ground up' and the idea of a mandate will need to be broadened to show an increasingly engaged and responsive visage to government decision making. 

Emily Clifford is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing chang