Saturday June 10, 2023

Strengthening people’s trust in the public sector needs action from all of us

Published : 15 Nov 2019, 10:06

  By Juha Sarkio
File Photo Xinhua.

Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union is drawing towards its close. One of the main themes of our Presidency has been trust, and what we can do to strengthen it.

Trust in the public sector is waning – and there does not seem to be any quick fix to turn the tide. This appears to be the prevailing view on the basis of our discussions within the European Public Administration Network (EUPAN).

The issue of trust is part of a broader theme: our changing societies. The environment we used to know and think safe, perhaps even predictable, is becoming more and more volatile. Even the authorities are sometimes at a loss in the face of difficult problems.

The heart of the matter is that either we see shaping our future and solving our problems as common concerns or we, as individuals, outsource them to someone else. Like trust, the sense of participation is subjective.

Transparency and participation for stronger trust

Although studies show that Finland ranks high on nearly all indicators of social and political trust, the picture changes when we look at differences between population groups. Studies indicate that general trends in inequalities in society and participation seem to find a reflection in trust as well.

Our discussions at EU level keep coming back to two different ways to promote trust. These are transparency and participation.

Finland has probably the most transparent public sector in Europe. This transparency applies not only to data but also to activities and the use of funds. Some EU member states admire this, while others think it strange. People often remark that the high level of transparency we have in Finland probably would not work in their countries. I wonder why? Perhaps in Finland we are more accustomed to the idea of open sharing of information, and it is easier for us to accept it. Unfortunately, even this does not seem to have any effect on our trust ratings.

Despite our high transparency rankings, we still have a lot to do and learn when it comes to promoting participation. Many countries are investing heavily in enabling the broad participation of citizens in public affairs.

In Finland, we have tried a number of different ways to promote public debate and encourage citizens to become involved in reforming public services, but so far we have failed to mobilise any great numbers of people. I believe that when you have common concerns and are willing to spend some of your own time on addressing them, your trust in the system will increase. The big question is therefore how to put those concerns on the common agenda.

We are on the right track, but we need more success stories. We must think big and aim high, but nothing is too insignificant to improve it. Let’s continue our valuable work for transparency and participation – and let’s keep Finland a society of trust.

Note: The writer is Director-General of the Ministry of Finance.