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The world is looking for new directions from US President Biden, hoping – among other things – that the credibility and trust in the US as the beacon of democracy in the world is restored.
To begin with, he will need to build trust in government inside the US: for example, 70% of Republicans think the US election was stolen. And recent events – such as the storming of the Capitol – confirm that its institutions of democracy are under threat from the extreme right and from foreign interference. This erosion is accelerated by baseless critiques of electoral legitimacy; wedge politics; the weaponization of the internet through cancel culture; a growing dysfunction in policy-making; economic disparity and a sense of disenfranchisement; and a mainstream press that has no idea how to adjust its ethical commitment to neutrality in the face of toxic, anti-democratic office-holders or their enablers.
What are the implications for Canada? After all, one in five Canadians agree that the US election was illegitimate. What does this tell us broadly about the trust that these citizens have in the institutions of democracy to ensure – in this case – a fair election? And why does it matter?
In Canada, it is tempting to be complacent: internationally, Canada is 14th in the Legatum Prosperity Index among 149 countries; top for public service effectiveness and third, behind Norway and Sweden, for the quality of life for women. Yet as Yascha Mounk notes: “…the one prediction that has reliably misled us – the assumption that things will forever remain the way they have always been – remains the most popular, even today.”
Trust is the currency of democratic governments. And like all currencies, it fluctuates. The Edelman Trust Barometer noted in spring, 2020 at the height of the pandemic’s first wave that trust in government, including in Canada, was high. A more recent Edelman Trust Barometer reminds us that trust has fallen back again and that there remains a “trust inequality” in Canada with a 16-point trust gap between the informed public and the mass population, as well as a general lack of confidence (65%) in the system.
A key player in maintaining citizen trust in our democratic institutions is the public service. The OECD lists five government ‘trust indicators’: reliability, responsiveness, openness/inclusiveness, integrity and fairness. One might add relevance, the ability of the public service to respond to the modern, 21stcentury world it faces in a modern, 21stcentury fashion with modern, 21stcentury tools.
Without doubt, in Canada citizenexpectations of the public service have increased. The performance of our public institutions during the pandemic as they responded, connected, generated new programming, implemented new services, undertook speedy and comprehensive vaccine regulatory reviews and continue to grapple with the challenges of mass vaccination has raised the expectation bar.
Now, as Canada plans for an uncertain post-pandemic future, it is the time to ensure ongoing trust by citizens in our democratic institutions by thinking about what Canadians need from a modern public service. The government needs to work closely with the public service to make sure that it learns from this moment, adjusts accordingly, and positions itself for the future.
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