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How do we restore trust in the public sector?

Speaking at the New Statesman Future Generations conference, panellists discussed how to prevent young people from losing faith in crucial public services.

In the past three years there has been momentous upheaval in British society, from the Covid-19 pandemic, to worker and supply shortages fuelled by Brexit, to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These major challenges have pushed the public sector to breaking point, and as people struggle to pay their energy bills or book a GP appointment, they are increasingly losing faith in the institutions that are supposed to help them.

The professional services firm PwC conducted research in February to explore what is driving levels of trust in public institutions, surveying 4,060 people and undertaking multiple focus groups. It found that nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of people did not trust public institutions to spend money wisely or to represent their interests, and 47 per cent did not trust them with making plans for the future. The majority of respondents also said that their trust in central and local government and the police had declined over the past five years.

However, the research found that young people are generally more trusting than older generations; while less than half (46 per cent) of people trust public sector institutions to deliver reliable and consistent services, this increases to nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of 16- to 17-year-olds.

[See also: Public sector pay rises would not drive inflation, say leading economists]

At the New Statesman’s Future Generations conference last week PwC’s government and health industries leader, Rachel Taylor, took part in a panel discussion on how faith can be restored in the public sector. The other panellists were Andy Haldane, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and Ademola Adeyeba, founder of the social enterprise 1,000 Black Boys, which aims to inspire black boys and men aged ten to 25 to fulfil their potential.

When asked by the panel’s chair, Alona Ferber, editor of Spotlight, the New Statesman‘s policy section, what “trust” constitutes, Taylor defined it as an organisation having “credibility and reliability” and people having confidence that it will “act honestly and effectively” to consistently do the job it is meant to do. Such trust is crucial, PwC’s research lays out, to maintain civic participation, reduce polarisation among communities, and tackle critical issues such as climate change and public health crises.

Collaboration between the private and public sectors was a pertinent theme throughout the discussion. “The challenges we face locally, nationally and globally are not straightforward,” said Taylor. “Trust isn’t something we solve individually but as a collective.” The role that private businesses play in rebuilding trust is two-fold, she said: delivering services and providing funding.

She highlighted the £50m Innovation Investment Fund from Cardiff Capital Region (a group of ten local authorities in Wales), which aims to create local jobs and boost skills by investing in businesses across the creative industries, fintech, medtech and cybersecurity. PwC has been appointed to run the programme over five years, and funding will include a mix of private and public investment.

[See also: The five key tech areas for the public sector in 2023]

“The private sector plays a role because it’s part of the delivery chain, and therefore needs to be trusted, but also because [private money is necessary] to deal with some of the challenges we’ve talked about,” said Taylor.

Haldane agreed that public-private alliances are crucial to success, highlighting the UK’s successful Covid-19 vaccine rollout as a model. “This state versus market bifurcation makes absolutely no sense,” he said. “Every example I’ve seen of progress – economically, societally, environmentally – has come from that partnership way of working.”

Transparency and honesty are vital to building trust, the panellists agreed. Organisations need to demystify what they do, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, by using accessible language and making data publicly available. PwC’s research revealed a consistent call from the public for the government to be more transparent, resolve issues faster and involve local communities more in decision-making. “We don’t just face a deficit of trust [in public institutions] but a deficit of understanding,” said Haldane. “[Government data] needs to be opened up and made sense of to restore and rebuild trust.”

But such data needs to be communicated coherently, he said, by making it tangible and relevant to people’s lives. For example, banks should talk about finances in a way that is useful, such as the benefits of savings, what interest rates mean and how to budget efficiently.

Data doesn’t just mean numbers, it also means stories,” he said. “Grounding it in the reality of everyday decision making is absolutely crucial. We need to do a much better job of this right across the government and the public sector.”

Being truthful and authentic was highlighted by Adeyeba as “the foundation for building trust”, especially for marginalised groups, who he said are often left out of economic and policymaking conversations and are wary of institutions such as the police. Indeed, PwC’s research highlights that wealthier respondents tend to be more trusting of public organisations. “For so many young people, public institutions are not even on their radar,” he said. “[But], when… they see how it impacts their day-to-day lives, it grabs their attention.”

[See also: Public sector pay is worth less than at any time since 2004]

The panellists agreed that listening to people’s views is important for effective engagement, with Haldane highlighting how the banking industry organises citizens panels across the UK, which are used as a “listen fest, not a talk fest” to understand people’s lived experiences of economics. Taylor added that PwC representatives regularly visit schools and community groups to learn more about their understanding of economics and policymaking. PwC is improving social mobility through its recruitment, including by removing the 2:1 degree classification requirement for its graduate roles, and by publishing its socio-economic background pay and bonus gaps.

Workforce diversity was highlighted as vital to building trust amongst the general population, especially having “relatable leaders”. Taylor said it was “fundamental” that people felt represented within leadership teams. “People don’t trust organisations that don’t look and feel like them,” she said. “How can you create policy if you don’t have a range of skills and experience to draw on?”

Adeyeba said that businesses and organisations had a “social contract” to deliver to the communities they operate in and having someone from the community in charge is a good way to facilitate that. By not investing in diversity, “you have so much creativity and wisdom that you’re potentially missing out on,” he said.

Haldane brought it back to data transparency and said that publicly reporting workforce demographic data, including social background alongside ethnicity and gender, is a good start for trust-building. As well as encouraging diverse recruitment, there is also work to be done in workplace inclusion, which is vital for staff retention.

Engaging on a local rather than national level was also highlighted as another way to deliver services personably and authenticly. “The same people who don’t trust politicians often trust their local MPs,” said Haldane. “The same people who don’t trust the banking system would trust their high street bank manager.”

PwC’s research shows that while there are challenges in building trust in public sector institutions, there are also opportunities to increase trust and engagement among young people. To ensure the next generation of adults does not become demoralised, policymakers and businesses need to work together to deliver empathetic services, prioritise diversity, and instil transparency and honesty into their communications.

Learn more about PwC’s research into restoring trust in public institutions.

[See also: Why public services will fail without tax reform]

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