Maintaining the people’s trustTrust is a valuable form of social capital that helps fuel the effective running of social networks and systems. Most advanced societies today are plagued with plummeting public confidence in governments. South Korea is no exception to this global phenomenon. It may be partly due to the economic slump, but it also owes a lot to a widening gap between public expectations of the government and the government’s actual performance.
Disillusionment and disappointment in the government further waters down confidence in the system and makes smooth progress in governance difficult. The government would have to make an extra effort to cut through this vicious cycle.
Both the central and local governments must do their best to deliver basic public services that impact people’s everyday lives. They also should push ahead with various policies and goals they have promised to the people so that they can build public confidence and approval of government performance.
In this respect, politicians should be responsible from the very start when they make promises to the public during campaigns. They must not pump out ridiculous ideas like a pledge to build a bridge where there is no river. Instead, they must come up with plausible and feasible plans after thorough studies. When a revision or a change of plan is inevitable, the government must make an effort to allow the people to understand its decision, possibly by proposing alternative ideas.
The approach that is most foolish is to cling to a campaign pledge that is impossible to meet because the fulfillment of that promise will actually damage the government’s credibility and its ability to carry out effective governance. To prevent such a mishap, the political sector should draw up some kind of mechanism to rein in reckless campaign promises.
The Park Geun-hye government is under fire for substantially scaling down its signature welfare promise: a universal basic monthly pension allowance for the elderly. The plan the president promised during her campaign last year turned out to be way too expensive. If the modification of a campaign promise is inevitable due to various circumstances, the president and government should first apologize and present some kind of alternative to secure the understanding and cooperation of the people and the political sector as a whole. Such sincerity could help boost — rather than hurt — public confidence in the government. Instead of wrangling over the down-sized welfare program, the political sector must focus on whether the government’s alternative proposal is the best feasible plan.
The Volcker Alliance, headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve and an outspoken campaigner for improvement in public administration to enhance public trust, together with the Salzburg Global Seminar, held a seminar last week in Salzburg, Austria, on the theme of “Restoring the Public’s Trust: Delivering on Public Policy Goals.”
I took part in the seminar along with heads of major international organizations, former senior government officials from the United States, Britain and many others, former U.S. governors and mayors, accredited professors from universities across the world, research institution heads, presidents of polling companies and journalists, although I cannot name them under the Chatham House Rule, the code of confidentiality of the source of information from the meeting.
The event was held in Schloss Leopoldskron, a rococo palace that is home to the Salzburg Global Seminar and more famous as the setting of the Von Trapp family mansion in the film “Sound of Music.” The Salzburg Global Seminar was the brainchild of two Harvard University students and a lecturer who envisioned “a cultural bridge” between Europeans and Americans to stimulate fruitful transcontinental academic exchanges following the end of World War II. The three-day fully-packed program was led by the towering — over 2 meters (6 feet) tall — and charismatic Volcker with intensity and wit.
Volcker devised the U.S. monetary policy that ended the stagflation crisis of the 1970s and also was behind President Richard Nixon’s 1971 decision to suspend gold convertibility that resulted in the disastrous run in U.S. prices. The two events were important turning points in his career, and he pushed ahead with the sometimes painful policies despite strong protests with rock conviction. His unwavering stance and consistency worked in the end because he had the confidence of the market and the public.
The participants in the meeting shared and contributed wide-ranging suggestions and debate on the theme to improve public attitudes toward bureaucracy. The meeting also confirmed that effective governance and policy achievements can strengthen public confidence and that public trust is the best encouragement for governments to carry out their policies responsively and responsibly. Governments must concoct good policies, but more importantly, they must be implemented effectively. Our politicians and government should pay heed to those wise words.