Last week, I was on a panel at a conference for the Public Service on 'Thinking Big', run by the Institute of Public Administration. With other panellists, including Frances Adamson (secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), we talked about the challenges facing the public sector, including (hot topic) how to re-establish trust between governments and people.
That got me thinking.
As British high commissioner in Australia, I am clearly now part of what is called 'the establishment' or 'the elite'.
I don’t wear that label with ease, given my upbringing (a small terraced house in a London suburb); my education (comprehensive school); my wealth (all I have I’ve earned); and my history (grandparents who were miners and butchers, working-class through and through).
And I resist the classification of our world into two types of people, the 'elite' and 'the ordinary': it’s too simplistic, too binary, too stark.
But if 2016 has taught me anything, it’s that those of us who sit within government need to step up our response to that view of the world, and play a role in rebuilding trust by our citizens in public institutions. As Prime Minister Theresa May said in her speech this week:
As anti-globalisation sentiment grows, it’s incumbent on those of us in positions of leadership to respond: to make sense of the changing world around us and to shape a new approach that preserves the best of what works, and evolves and adapts what does not.
So what can we do as diplomats and as public servants? Some thoughts:
- Only connect. We need to break out of our government buildings, our embassies, our ivory towers, and engage with people. We have the means to do this, especially in this highly digitised world. But there is a risk that we connect only with people like us; members of another country’s liberal elite, whether by Twitter or by cocktail party. So we need to diversify our outreach: include Open Days at offices and residences; participate in local festivals and events; engage with local public schools. And (though this is a tough one) we should try to break out of the algorithms that reinforce our own digital bubbles, so we hear and speak with the sceptics as well as the converted.
- Protect our people. Consular work, through which we support distressed British people who get into trouble overseas, is critical to our mission, but also to our legitimacy in the eyes of the taxpayer. For many 'ordinary Brits', their only contact with a British embassy or the UK diplomatic service will be when they have a problem while abroad. Yes, we should encourage travellers to do more to protect themselves, and to fix the small stuff. But when things go badly wrong we should be there to help people. That should be a top priority for people like me.
- Ensure our service delivery is bloody brilliant. We (the broader UK Government) are onto this one, as is Australia; we need to ensure that our services to Joe Public are second-to-none. And that digital-by-default feels like a service improvement, not a withdrawal, and is based on the needs of users, not government requirements. For embassies and consulates, that means friendly receptionists and security guards, phone trees that get you to real people when you need them, and excellent, up-to-date websites. I think we do much of this well, but we can be better.
- Diversify internally. Again, this is work in progress. The UK diplomatic service of today is (thankfully) much more representative of modern Britain than it was when I joined 26 years ago. The same goes for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And work continues to broaden our recruitment base beyond the traditional schools and universities to span the regions and different sectors of society. But we should intensify our focus on socio-economic diversity if we want to reconnect the establishment with wider communities. On this front, we have much further to go.
- Collaborate and partner. Gone are the days when foreign ministries held the whole world in our hands, or when embassies were the sole conduit for diplomatic affairs. Today, prime ministers text or WhatsApp each other. Domestic ministries have primacy in areas of international policy. We can be defensive or protective about that, or we can embrace it, seeing collaboration across government as intrinsic to the conduct of diplomacy. But it goes wider than this; how we collaborate with business, with NGOs, with philanthropists, with people, will determine our future success in supporting our citizens and our national interest.
I’m not pretending this list is full or exhaustive – it’s just where I intend to start. But all of us who work for our government (in the UK, Australia and beyond) have a role to play in rebuilding trust: it’s an urgent, shared responsibility of our times. I’d welcome views beyond the bubble on what more we could be doing to achieve it.
Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg