The significance of the National Audit Office of Finland (NAOF) as the independent supervisor of fiscal policy is important for the functioning of the Finnish society. The task of the NAOF is to ensure the appropriate use of state funds and thus help to maintain the accountability and trustworthiness of central government. This guest blog examines the role of the NAOF in building trust. The guest bloggers are persons outside the National Audit Office who have views and experience of the activities of the agency. Any views presented in the blog are personal opinions of the guest bloggers.
Trust as a topic of research, concept and challenge
In summer 2018, I conducted a study for the NAOF on the trustworthiness of the agency from the viewpoint of its stakeholder groups. The study became part of my master’s thesis, which investigates the significance of trust from the perspective of independent organisations. The study material comprised a reputation survey commissioned by the NAOF in 2013 as well as interviews with public servants in central government and members of Finnish Parliament carried out in summer 2018.
Trust is an essential part of democracy. Representative democracy is based on the premise that we can trust that our elected representatives advocate matters that are important for us as they have promised. We must also be able to trust that public servants handle our case objectively and that our tax money is spent in an appropriate manner.
The SITRA publication From the trials of democracy towards future participation (2017) states that trust in democracy is in trouble worldwide. Political divide, disintegration and global crises such as climate change have resulted in serious conflicts and waves of refugees, the impacts of which can be seen globally. Finland is also affected by these developments: the trust of Finns in the honesty and professionalism of politicians and public administration is wavering.
There is still no generally accepted definition for trust, and therefore its meaning can vary greatly depending on the context and culture. Trust in society requires trust in a number of different actors. For this reason, trust in society is often divided into social trust and political trust.
So far, social trust has remained at a high level in Finland: most Finns believe in the benevolence of strangers. On the other hand, political trust, i.e. trust in politicians and political institutions, is weaker in Finland than in the other Nordic countries.
Why do we need political trust?
Strengthening of political trust does not mean that we should no longer criticise politics. To a certain extent, political distrust is an important part of healthy democracy. However, on its current scale, the extent of political distrust raises concerns. As stated in the SITRA publication, distrust further increases the stratification of society and inequality. This in turn hampers the dialogue between different groups and weakens administrative efficiency. Lack of political trust also undermines the democratic legitimacy and thus the entire social system.
Political trust covers not only day-to-day politics but also operations of policy-driven institutions. This means that central government activities also affect political trust. Although public servants are not political actors per se, they are responsible for the practical implementation of policy decisions.
On the basis of the interviews I conducted in summer 2018, central government is aware of the need to strengthen political trust. All public servants I interviewed expressed the desire to enhance the accountability and trustworthiness of their respective organisations.
Maintaining the credibility of central government is important, as mistrust towards public administration also weakens political trust. If the nature of political decisions changes in central government, or if citizens have reason to suspect that politically influenced public servants are steering the work in ministries instead of the ministers, the belief that politics and political debate actually matter could weaken.
The role of independent organisations in the strengthening of political trust
The National Audit Office of Finland has several characteristics that make it a credible advocate of political trust. These include, for example, the NAOF’s independence, its status as a reliable expert organisation, and its trustworthiness among the stakeholder groups. The NAOF enjoys the trust of citizens, MPs and public servants alike.
The strong trust in the agency is particularly attributable to its independent position. On the basis of the research material, the stakeholder groups consider the independence of the NAOF to be at a very good level. The independent position of the agency reduces concerns that its activities might be politically influenced and provides the NAOF with the role of a builder of trust between citizens and government. As one interviewee put it, the NAOF acts as a “government watchdog”, making sure that taxpayers’ money is not wasted.
In today’s world, expertise is globally valued. Experts and expert organisations are the modern-day elite who can dictate their own rules and standards, to which even government bows down. In the current climate where political trust is wavering, this means, for example, that people tend to trust more in experts than in politicians.
Since politics and public administration have traditionally been kept separate in Finland, and because public servants are first and foremost seen as experts, trust in state institutions has so far remained at a high level despite the weakened political trust. As a rule, we have a positive attitude towards expert organisations: it is more common to trust in institutions than not to trust in them.
Since the NAOF collects and provides information about the activities of central government, it is one of the top experts to evaluate the overall performance of central government. In addition, the NAOF enjoys strong trust among its stakeholders. The NAOF is therefore a trustworthy organisation to report on political performance and achievement of the targets set. Information provided by the NAOF also helps to maintain the trustworthiness of public administration and thus also the trust in democracy.
The NAOF’s new strategy contains three effectiveness targets:
Improved performance of central government finances
Improved trust in the information on which decisions are based
Improved trust in that the Finnish central government acts openly, effectively and sustainably.
These strategic targets are all strongly linked to the strengthening of political trust. In my view, the NAOF has huge potential to assume a key role in the resolution of conflicts arising from lack of information and in the clearing of unfounded doubts. The agency’s stakeholders perceive it as a reliable, trustworthy, independent and competent organisation. The NAOF also works in close collaboration with central government, enhancing the accountability and trustworthiness of government activities. The NAOF’s role as an ally of the citizens is equally important. Based on the NAOF’s new strategy, the agency is also ready to work for stronger democracy and trust even in the future.
Writer: Raakel Kumpunen