Rebuilding public trust


By Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO

Trust is tricky. It takes a lifetime to build and only seconds to destroy. Ipsos Mori poll annually on public trust in different professions, and unless you’re a doctor, nurse, teacher or police officer, if you’re working in the public sector, the picture isn’t pretty. Civil servants and councillors, for instance, are less trusted than ‘the ordinary man or woman in the street’. And unfortunately, this picture has been pretty static for some time. So much so, that it’s become a cliché not to trust politicians and those tasked with delivering a political agenda.

Frustratingly, public institutions have an unhelpful habit of compounding the problem. When the crisis in trust reappears as part of the public conversation, institutions are often seen paying lip service to the issue. Words like 'transparency' are bandied around with no real idea of what that looks like for the man on the street. 

So when I ask how we can improve trust in our public institutions, what I’m really asking is what practical steps can we take to show the public that we are working in their best interests? And who is in a position to take those practical steps?

While the politicians present their visions for transparency and integrity, as the gatekeepers of the public purse it is public finance professionals who mould these words into action. 

Through prudent planning, strong financial management and robust reporting, accountants are taking steps to ensure that services are delivered for taxpayers like you and I. And crucially, ensuring that we can be informed about how this is happening and hold our elected officials accountable. 

One method that public sector accountants are using to achieve this is by streamlining their accounting and reporting practices. All local authorities report a dizzying amount of information in the name of transparency. The profession is working to better translate the story of the financial sustainability of individual authorities by giving clear, simple and relevant information.

Removing barriers to the public’s ability to understand how their money is being spent and why is a key enabler that allows them to ask questions, develop fully informed opinions, and then take those opinions to the ballot box. 

CIPFA is committed to streamlining this journey, which is why we’ve produced new guidance on streamlining accounts. The publication supplies practical tips for both financial statements and year-end financial processes by providing general guidance, case studies, and worked examples.

While we appreciate that not all suggestions will be appropriate for every authority, we would see them acting as a good 'starter for 10' to be developed over time as part of local authorities’ own financial reporting improvement plans.

In addition to supporting their public duty to provide quality information, authorities that have already taken steps to streamline have found that clearer and shorter accounts can be prepared to a high quality with less resource. At a time when resource pressures are becoming more severe on all sides, for many this will be a welcome added bonus!

While it’s going to take a lot more than honest and ethical accounting practices to turn around the picture painted annually by Ipsos Mori, the first steps must be taken somewhere. The foundations have to be laid by someone. And for as long as these silent heroes are setting an example for what taxpayers should expect of the public sector across all professions, I will remain quietly optimistic about the future. 

This article first appeared in LGC.

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