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On the Trust Gap

Friday, May 30, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

There's been a lot of discussion as of late regarding the so-called "trust gap" between the non-partisan civil service and the duly elected government; here's my take.

It's easy to snipe from the sidelines

Amidst the talk, the focus seems to be on the senior ranks of the public service. It's a narrow slice of the civil service and while an argument could be made that it's the most important juncture in the system it's also the one that the least amount of civil servants have any direct experience with and there's the rub. There's a big difference between first hand experience and conjecture and I'll give the former the benefit of the doubt before the latter any day of the week.

The gap is not restricted to the federal family

I've spent a fair bit of time speaking to bureaucrats in other jurisdictions lately (especially those heading into elections) and the gap is a common theme. Politics aside, the truth of the matter is that the motivations, incentives and time horizons of professional non-partisan civil servants are different than those of elected officials. That's not a condemnation, just an observation.

Unsurprisingly I'm of the view that the gap is likely little more than a natural by-product of these different world views coming together. I admit that the arrangement is inherently antagonistic but I'd argue that its more a function of design (Westminster) than of aesthetics (the colour of the banner at the helm).

The gap isn't necessarily where you think it is

I've already mentioned the fact that the focus seems to be on the senior ranks, but what about the gap(s) between rank and file civil servants? Between you the person sitting next to you? You and the person who manages you? The person who manages you and the person who manages them?

I've written in the past about trust (See: Trust is the Only Thing That Scales, On Fearless Advice and Loyal Implementation, and On Risk, Fearless Advice, and Loyal Implementation) and it's a frequent topic of discussion whenever I get behind a microphone.

Frankly, when the rubber meets the road I don't think we trust each other, at least not on the scale that we should. We're more apt to avoid difficult conversations than we are to engage in them. We are more likely to hang a Dilbert comic on our cubicle in a passive aggressive show of resistance than we are to champion a mature conversation on its underlying, and often sad, truth. We opt for impersonal emails over phone calls, typefaces over people's faces.

But the higher order question, the question of trust — genuine trust — permeates every aspect of our work with each other and the public we (civil servants and elected officials) collectively serve. Governance is trust. So what happens when, as Kent points out in Risk, Failure and Honesty, trust in government declines?

Where's that discussion? 

Where's the discussion about whether or not we ought to be citizens before taxpayers?

Public servants before bureaucrats?

Leaders before politicians?

That's the discussion I'm interested in, and that's the discussion I think we ought to be having.