Re-establishing trust

The first Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, is said to have remarked once, ‘Trust is good, control is better.’ Whether he really said this or not, it is a principle that underpinned the Soviet Union’s system of bureaucracy, and it is at least arguable that it contributed to the ultimate collapse of the USSR. It would be wrong, however, to imagine that other political systems have consistently approached public administration differently; there has always been a tendency to see tight government controls as a solution in almost any crisis. And we are currently careering through an unprecedented crisis in which the imposition of controls has become not just a government response but also a public demand: we want to persuade ourselves that a serious financial crisis, or an ethical crisis in top management, will never occur again if only we impose a regulatory straitjacket.

The higher education sector is currently on the receiving end of this approach, and indeed is experiencing this without having made any known contribution to the economic difficulties we are in. And yet the consensus in political circles appears to be that a light touch system of governance has failed and will need to be replaced by onerous controls and bureaucratic interventions. I don’t mean this comment to be confrontational, as I accept that universities have not always been good at demonstrating transparency, and though they have tended to respond well to national priorities as determined by government, this has not necessarily been communicated well to stakeholders. So we are now experiencing regular new mechanisms to restrict freedom of action by universities and subject even quite detailed operational decisions to direct bureaucratic restrictions.

In the end, my point is that the sector will both work more willingly and constructively to help secure national objectives, and will do so with a greater sense of innovation and reform, if the basis for the relationship between it and government were based on trust and confidence. We need to gain a better understanding of how this was compromised or lost, and how we can restore it. What is facing us right now is a whole-scale bureaucratisation of the system (which will probably turn out to be very costly in both money and effectiveness), and we need to seek dialogue to ensure that this is not what happens. Universities as administrative units of government will not secure global excellence, and are unlikely to be imaginative educators.

There is significant research to demonstrate that trust is an important ingredient of good governance. It is time to think again, for all of us.

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7 Comments on “Re-establishing trust”

  1. otto Says:

    “What is facing us right now is a whole-scale bureaucratisation of the system”

    Can you provide a few examples of what is going on? i.e. identify some of those new mechanisms to restrict freedom of action by universities.

    This blog is good, but sometimes coy on the details when talking about government policy.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    I once worked on a project for the Australian government. We were looking at the performance of some (minimally) state-funded rural youth groups. When the issue of how to monitor and evaluate them was being discussed I opined that maybe we should just trust them in relation to some of their motives and processes. The public servants at the meeting nearly fell of their chairs with indignation. The possibility that there could be anyone ‘out there’ whose business in life was not to rip-off the government was beyond them! Mind you, I’m sure their orientation towards august bodies such as the Australian Wheat Board (who did rip them off!) and big businesses was very different. I suspect that Ireland’s public service has a rather similar level of mistrust towards the tertiary sector.

    • Perry, I think what you have just described sums it up perfectly.

      • Hugh Says:

        The problem for public servants, I suspect, is knowing which sector to trust, and which not. Since this requires making judgements that could later be used to hang them, the safe option is to trust nobody. This results in a scattergun approach, whereby there’s lots of regulation, but much of it is ineffective because its badly drafted or can’t be policed due to resources being spread too thinly.

        I don’t believe a regulatory straitjacket is the answer, and I don’t want to see one. I’m naturally inclined to believe that people should be trusted until they demonstrate that they don’t deserve to be trusted, at which time they should be hammered and tied so tightly in the straitjacket that they never get an opportunity to breach trust again. But I don’t plan to hold my breath waiting for this to happen!

  3. anonymous Says:

    I think the key re-establishing trust is to ensure that people are made more responsible in their posts. Forgive this stereotype, however, I think it could be said that in general many people will do as little as possible at work (not everybody, but I have seen it in many cases); just enough to cover themselves and justify their positions.

    I think employment law in Ireland in general has made it very difficult to made employees properly responsible for their duties, both in the private and public sectors. If one thought they might loose their job because someone else might perform it better, then most people would perform to their best. Obviously this is a more complicated issue, however, my point is that it is hard to make people “feel like they need to work”.

    Alas, if it is so difficult to control employee performance, how on earth do companies like Intel, Google, Microsoft, etc, achieve it? Though proper management. This, I feel, is exactly what the public sector lacks.

    Thus, if everybody carried more responsiblity, mistakes would happen less, motivation would be higher, and trust would be re-established on the basis that the optimum output would be achieved from any investments.

  4. […] control is better”.  I think this definitely represents a common view on industry freedom.  Another blogger on here points out (in relation to the fact that the Soviet Union adopted such a position) that “it […]

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