Trust in consultants would seem to be at an all-time low, given the integrity breaches over inappropriate use of confidential information, conflicts of interest, and even the sharing of online assessments.

Yet they remain among the most capable and trusted advisers across industry and government.

Trust in the public sector would seem to be at a high, according to the annual report, though one might think it has taken a battering given robodebt and the apparent lack of accountability.

Regardless, while trust reportedly increased to 61% during the COVID-19 pandemic that still seems very low in my mind for a public organisation charged with looking after the nation’s safety, welfare and security.

What do we mean by trust, anyway?

Our trusted consultants tend to lean toward a concept known as ‘the trust equation’. It was coined by David Maister in his 2002 book The Trusted Advisor, which was recently re-released to coincide with its 20th anniversary.

Trustworthiness has four components – the sum of credibility, reliability and intimacy divided by self-orientation.

  • Credibility means: “Do I trust what they are saying”. Do they know what they are talking about; are they professional, or knowledgeable?
  • Reliability is trust in what they are doing. Will they deliver what they say they will deliver, and act in the way they say they will act?
  • Intimacy is about comfort with how they act and what they know of your organisation and circumstances.
  • Self-orientation in its simplest form is self-interest overriding client interests.

It’s a good model, and it is instructive. If every factor was a 10, the total score would only be three. If every factor was a five the score would still be three.

Self-interest is extraordinarily damaging, and that is where the consultants have fallen. Some of those companies, by their choices and behaviours, have caused extraordinary damage to themselves – as it should.

It also should take a long time to earn back, because the change in self-interest needs to be proven.

But what does this mean for the public sector?

A more nuanced assessment of trust in the annual report would be interesting. I suspect that there is a high belief that public servants act largely without self-interest.

The organisations are working for the public good, and individuals are looking to deliver good outcomes. There is little opportunity to profit personally and, in my experience, little desire.

In that aspect, the public sector is trustworthy. It means little evidence of corruption. It is a great strength of the organisation, but also for Australia. Something of which we can be proud.

But if the self-orientation denominator is small and the score is ~60%, that suggests that the other factors are also small. At best credibility, reliability and intimacy must be scoring in the fours and fives, and that is not so good.

That is a competency issue, not just a capacity issue.

The decades of outsourcing public sector activity to consultants and contractors have hollowed out the public sector — in both capacity and competency.

Hiring isn’t enough. Lifting professionalism and skills, the reliability that what is promised will be done when it is promised, and with the understanding of the constituency being served — which is the public, not just the politicians — is going to be a big task. It will take time.

What to do in the meantime?

One option is to only make progress within the public sector as capacity and competency are built internally. That approach will stagnate progress but is a bit of what we are seeing now. If it continues, it can only further damage credibility, reliability and intimacy.

Equally, though, we also don’t want a return to the reliance on contractors and an army of consultants filling the ranks of the public sector.

The answer must be somewhere in the middle. Hire in credibility and reliability, being extraordinarily cautious of the self-orientation. Reduce the exposure to self-interest by favouring those who have behaved well or are less exposed to the pressures of business growth.

It also means engaging support in smarter ways — driving for an effect, an outcome or a deliverable if that can be defined.

Investing in those skills will serve to improve the effectiveness of the public sector with less exposure to the ills of the past. This is the harder part because the “body shop surrogate resourcing” needs to stop. It’s easy, but part of the mess.

Ultimately, it’s not a matter of how big or small a public sector is, or how many contractors and consultants are engaged.  As the public sector measures the industry it engages, so too should the public measure the public sector.

We both have to be value for money.

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We are on the lookout for those who can deliver outcomes, not just activity – could that be you? Why don’t you find out?

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Don’t be caught playing it too safe

If past approaches haven’t worked, it might be time to try something new. Talk to us about what we have done, and what we might do for you.

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