Public policy, public opinion and the trust deficit



January 17th, 2012

Edited extract of a presentation at the Institute of Policy Studies’ Singapore Perspectives 2012 conference, 16 January 2012.

The government is convinced that making its presence felt in social media will reap dividends. On their own, though, such efforts will probably fail. The element in the communication environment that is critically lacking, without which any additional communicativeness would be futile, is trust. That trust cannot grow if the media are forced to side with public policy against public opinion 100% of the time, if we lack independent institutions to scrutinise the work of the executive, and if the government continues to conflate party interests with national interests.

Many of today’s speakers have addressed the possibility that changes in policy will help to heal the current rift between government and people. Even after better policies are formulated, however, a challenge remains –how to win over a skeptical, even cynical, public.

Given the government’s great anxiety since last year’s election that online anarchy could lead public opinion astray, it is timely to look at this issue here and now. But this is a problem that pre-dates Facebook and Twitter. It goes to the heart of one of democratic theory’s greatest dilemmas. Democracies face the risk that individual choices won’t add up to collective well-being. Individuals can fail to act in their own long-term interests, or fail to consider the interests of their fellow citizens.

As a result, there will always be gaps between public opinion and even the soundest public policy. Democratic systems manage this problem by improving the flow of information to and among citizens, as well as by insulating certain spheres of decision-making from democratic choice, on the grounds that these are better left to experts – the rule of law, for example, requires that the judicial system is shielded from the vagaries of public opinion.

Information vs insulation

The favoured balance between information and insulation differs from society to society. Singapore’s resolution of this dilemma is the result of two apparently contradictory convictions. On the one hand is its belief in being forthright with the people – often in exhaustive, repetitive detail. In contrast to the fantasies that are routinely peddled by leaders in many other countries, the PAP has a tradition of being brutally honest about Singapore’s challenges, limitations and vulnerabilities. Our National Day Rallies, for example, are unusually sombre and didactic events in the world of political speechmaking.

This communicative compulsion is counter-balanced, though, by a deep-seated pessimism about the public’s potential to rise to the challenge of democratic citizenship. In common with theorists of democratic elitism such as Walter Lippmann, the PAP believes that democracy needs to be protected from itself – that beyond a point, public participation is destabilising.

Lippmann wrote that enlightened public opinion was an unworkable fiction and unattainable ideal, like asking a fat man to be a ballet dancer. He favoured government guided by experts. Similarly, the PAP believes it would be naïve and perilous to hold high hopes in ordinary people’s capacity to absorb the knowledge and temperament required of active citizens in a participatory democracy. In some areas, decisions are seen as simply too technical; in others, the gulf between short-term individual interests and long-term societal interests too cavernous; while some issues are viewed as too visceral to expect people to exercise cool rationality.

The PAP’s low expectations of the public are seen in Singapore’s broadcasting policies. When the government progressively loosened the leash around the neck of the national broadcaster in the 1980s, the stations were not asked to emulate the BBC-style independent public service model. Instead, in line with the market fetishism of the times, policy-makers decided that TV was inevitably about show business.

This is significant because international research has shown that the level of basic political knowledge in a society – the kind of awareness that we expect citizens to have – is closely related to the strength of public service broadcasting. Current debates in Singapore are obsessed about the internet, but we have probably not looked hard enough at the three decades of television policy, which may have been the single most powerful cultural factor behind cultivating an entire generation of Singaporeans as consumers of public services instead of citizens with a right and responsibilities to participate in public life.

The Singapore strategy thus far has been to develop a public opinion that can be trusted to follow wise leadership, but not attempt to take the lead.

Communicativeness is not enough

Over the decades, nonetheless, PAP leaders have acknowledged that they must meet the growing demands for information and explanation from a better-educated and more skeptical population. Last year’s GE has pushed this trend further. The government is now convinced that making its presence felt in social media will reap dividends.

On their own, though, such efforts will probably fail to achieve the desired result.

Consider the most controversial issues of GE2011: immigration, social safety nets, public transport, housing prices, ministerial salaries. On all these issues, people had ample opportunity to hear the government’s arguments before and during the GE. Are we really to believe that if only politicians had used Facebook and other social media earlier and more enthusiastically, communication would have improved and the vote would have kinder to the PAP? I am incredulous. Similarly, I find it hard to accept that, if only Singapore’s establishment media had conveyed government positions with even greater fidelity than they did, the gap between government and people would have been narrowed.

Increased communicativeness will be more persuasive only if the context – the communication environment – changes. The element in the communication environment that is critically lacking, without which any additional communicativeness would be futile, is trust.

Barriers to trust

In the past, the PAP counted mainly on its track record and charismatic leadership to engender that trust. This is no longer possible. And there are at least three current barriers to building trust.

First, the primary platform through which government communicates with the public, the mainstream media, suffers from a credibility problem. In most areas of coverage, the media are professional enough to provide a valued and reliable service, including on most routine government news. However, at any one time, there are issues on which media credibility is low. The number of such issues may be small, but they are precisely the ones with the largest potential gap between policy and public opinion.

In such cases, government media policy dictates that the independent professional judgment of editors must be subordinate to elected officials’ judgments. The press is expected to educate the public and rally the nation behind the government, rather than push the government to respond to the people. What this effectively means is that the media are required to manage, muffle and mute public discontent while affirming and amplifying the government view. On all the election hot-button issues, public discontent was never totally covered up by the media, but people never got the sense that the media were on their side. And this severely limits the power of the media to guide the public precisely where that influence is most needed.

Second, the communication environment lacks independent voices in public debates: state and non-state institutions that stand apart from the executive, with the competence and credibility to comment authoritatively on problems and policies. These could include Ombudsmen, Commissions, independent think-tanks and other non-partisan expert institutions. This is where the PAP differs from theorists like Lippmann. Democratic elitism places its faith in a plural and competitive elite. PAP philosophy has not been enamoured of such intra-elite checks and balances because of the fear that these will slow down governance and confuse the public.

These risks are small relative to the benefits, in the form of the increased trust that could accrue to the government when more of its decisions are subject to independent scrutiny by competent institutions. Singaporeans have come to expect such oversight in all areas of life where we ourselves cannot hope to muster the necessary expertise.

Finally, there is the problem of conflict of interest, between national interest and party interest. While there is significant overlap between the interests of the ruling party and the interests of Singapore, these interests are not coterminous and most Singaporeans can see that. The most obvious example is the way electoral boundaries are drawn: the process is, beyond reasonable doubt, managed to benefit the PAP. Similarly, unequal treatment towards opposition constituencies when rolling out government programmes and services simply does not pass the smell test.

The odour of partisanship hangs in the air and sticks to other unpopular policies, even those that an objective analysis might conclude are justified as being in the national interest. Cynicism will continue to corrode trust as long as there are specific areas in which the government has, in the eyes of any reasonable Singaporean, put party before nation.

Accountability and transparency

Building trust in the communication environment is critically important because, like it or not, theories of democratic elitism have a point. Citizens – even highly educated ones with an interest in public affairs – can only take so much information about policies before their eyes glaze over.  Some will demand facts and figures in great detail and if the government is on firm ground, it should have no compunctions about providing the data. For most, however, it will be about taking a leap of faith, and that is where trust gives you wings.

That trust cannot grow if the media are consistently forced to side with policy against public opinion 100% of the time, if we lack independent institutions to scrutinise the work of the executive, and if the government continues to conflate party interests with national interests.

In an earlier era, we had faith in doctors because of the aura that the medical profession projected. Today, if we trust our doctors, it is not because we think they are gods, nor because we have studied medicine ourselves and can check their every move, but because of the assurance that our doctors function within a regulatory system that compels them to act in our interest, that the penalties if they fail to do so are high, and that we can get a second opinion if we want.

Such principles should be applicable to government as well. It is not mere repetition of our leaders’ diagnoses and prescriptions that will persuade the public to swallow bitter medicine, but the assurance that policy makers will open their decisions to independent scrutiny and verification.

Since we no longer expect to led by gods, proof of fallibility is not a liability. On the contrary, timely revelations of government’s mistakes is the proof we need that we are operating in a trustworthy communication environment. Conversely, if our institutions are only capable of telling us that the government is right, it should not be surprising that they are not believed.

Think tanks are supposed to think the unthinkable, and it is in this spirit that I have offered these comments. My prescription amounts to instituting limits on government and party – and the PAP has always operated on the principle of unlimited government in a dominant-party system. These ideas might be thinkable if the ship of state was in the dock, ready for an overhaul. But one of the ironies of Singapore’s success story is that because the ship is still cruising, it is that much harder to repair it. Asking the PAP to countenance a more open and competitive politics may be, to borrow Lippmann’s metaphor, like asking a fat man to be a ballet dancer. Whether it is unthinkable for a fat man to lose his extra pounds without losing himself is a question I will leave you with.

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