Nellie Mayshak: How Trust Hampers Public Sector Reform Efforts


It is, perhaps, easy to understand why many consider the term “trusted government” to be oxymoron.

Even as global efforts to reform governments and their agencies in line with citizens’ expectations as to what they should be delivering in services and policies, public trust is eroding. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reported widening gaps in trust in their institutions by the people in 20 of 28 countries, with the largest gap in the U.S. and the U.K. not far behind it. Even Canada, which has historically been neutral, slipped into distrust mode this year, with the institution its citizens most distrust being the government.

Lack of public trust is an issue that can hamper reform efforts — and is far more serious than many realize, according to Nellie Mayshak, president and principal consultant at Canaf Consulting Associates. Nellie Mayshak has been spearheading public sector reform initiatives for 30 years in Canada, Africa and Eastern Europe, and has found it far more difficult to achieve traction if citizens aren’t positively engaged and trusting.

And the single biggest cause of government distrust, Mayshak says she has found, is political partisanship and instability. It was the instability of Liberia’s government after more than a decade of civil war that made her work helping to reconstruct Liberia’s civil service challenging, she recalls.

Mayshak notes that it took 12 years of unified commitment by Liberia’s leaders, particularly its first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to establish stability and consolidate democracy, even as her government improved infrastructure and economic investment.

“Her [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s] consistency and leadership made all the difference in restoring the faith and confidence of the Liberian people,” Nellie Mayshak reflects. “It’s a fragile trust, but it has helped enable the drive for reform.”

In politically disjointed economies like the U.S. with years of gridlock and partisan politics or the U.K. with its polarizing Brexit vote, citizens react by turning away from government. Government is seen as part of the problem – not as a solution – as distrust mounts.

Those who have achieved political and economic stability, though, are able to tell a different story – and one that those struggling with public sector reform could learn from. Take one of the countries that the Edelman study consistently finds is most trusted by its citizens – the United Arab Emirates.

It wasn’t always so, writes Paul Laudicina, chairman emeritus of consultancy A.T. Kearney, in Forbes. Into the 1950s, the UAE was a group of separate and feuding sheikhdoms, struggling economically, without a cohesive vision and with a demoralized and untrusting citizenry.

While oil production supported the start of its transformation after the British government pulled its support, the visionary leadership of the new nation that formed in 1971 looked beyond oil for its future. Its drive for reform led to long range planning and substantial investment in development, finance and logistics infrastructure – with Dubai emerging, as planned, as a major financial center and trade hub. More importantly, Laudicina stresses, the UAE’s leadership delivered where it mattered to its people: Smart technologies, transformed K-12 education, and investment in its healthcare infrastructure, among other achievements.

Nellie Mayshak believes there are a number of governments that are instituting positive and innovative reform measurements around the world.


She says: “It is increasingly understood that despite the pressures they face of burdensome debt and shrinking budgets, they have a dual responsibility. One is to get creative in doing more with less. But they must do it in very visible ways. That’s the only way they will be able to regain the faith of their citizens.”