In 25 minutes, I will try to say something significant and provocative about three big ideas that are currently in fashion. The ideas are trust, leadership and accountability. Trust in government is a hot topic among academics, management consultants and practitioners. The concept has many meanings and is difficult to measure. Leadership is almost as elusive a concept as trust. Whole forests have been sacrificed to publish more than 50,000 books and articles on the topic since the 1970s. Leadership is one of the most studied and least understood phenomenon in society. Accountability has become another popular buzzword. The prevailing view is that accountability is missing or weakly enforced in governments today. Because it is seen as such an important value in a democracy, the conventional wisdom is that there can never be too much accountability and new mechanisms of enforcement must be added.
I want to examine the emerging relationships among trust, leadership and accountability, both at the level of philosophy and in practice. Since this is not an Agatha Christie mystery, let me tell you at the outset where I am going with my argument. Concern about the loss of trust in governments is a popular theme in the academic literature and in government reports. I will argue that all the talk about a “crisis of trust” is good rhetoric, but poor analysis. It is more accurate to describe the situation as a “trust deficit,” both in terms of outside, public confidence in governments, and in terms of relationships inside of governments. A deficit is not as melodramatic and alarming as a “crisis,” but it is a problem which needs to be addressed.
Public sector leaders play a crucial role in establishing cultures and climates of trust with the public, among levels of government and with private organizations, and within their own institutions. In government, leadership involves both elected politicians and appointed public servants. In terms of the trust deficit, politicians have contributed more to the problem than public servants. More trustworthy political leadership is needed.
Today, the predominant approach to solving the trust deficit is to insist on more mechanisms of oversight and stricter accountability for public office holders. Traditional, informal relationships of trust have been found wanting. They are being replaced by an ever expanding web of rules, procedures, and oversight bodies intended to deter and to deal with incidents of wrongdoing, inefficiencies, performance failures and a perceived lack of accountability. The Federal Accountability Act (FAA), which was given Royal Assent in December 2006 and which will be implemented on a gradual, staggered basis, is the latest and fullest expression of the movement to formalize relations and undertakings in order to increase the trustworthiness of public sector leaders. By my count the FAA adds eight new oversight bodies and strengthens the mandates of several others, especially the Auditor General. The rationale behind the Act seems to be: If the trustworthiness of public officials can be guaranteed by regulating and monitoring their behaviour, and punishing wrongdoing, then placing trust will become unnecessary or at least much more limited in scope. In other words, to achieve the appearance of trustworthiness, governments have institutionalized the principle of distrust. Make no mistake about it, the Federal Accountability Act sends a powerful, negative symbolic message about the motives, intentions, behaviours and competence of public office holders, both elected and appointed. The Act caters to and reinforces the negative public mood towards governments. It may, however, end up deepening the distrust it seeks to remedy.