Increasing trust in steering by the government

Uitgestoken hand

Quite some executive organisations of the government are steered based on product agreements and performance agreements. 1040 class hours, degree funding or other products and funding tied to that. Such agreements are designed for accountability and suggest grip on matters. But they are often experienced as a form of control. They often create distrust and can encourage opportunistic behaviour. There is the fear that professionals in the executive organisations do not make the right choices.

Does the government actually still trust civilians and professionals? And how can we actually enhance trust within the public sector instead of damaging it? Thomas Schillemans (Utrecht University) conducts research into forms of steering in the public sector that can increase trust. Both nationally and internationally, recently for Danish ministries. He argues in favour of “stewardship”: “You assume that the person who carries out a task is intrinsically motivated to do things right.”

“Danish ministries and research institutes were looking for another strategy in the steering of executive organisations and educational institutions, such as universities,” says Professor of Accountability, Behaviour and Institutions Thomas Schillemans. “We conducted this research in collaboration with two ministries, colleagues at the universities of Aarhus and Copenhagen, and also with DJØF, an influential institute that’s somewhat comparable to the Dutch CAOP. These organisations were looking for forms of steering that don't destroy mutual trust but increase it instead. In November, they organised a conference in Copenhagen where we could have a discussion on steering and trust with the ministries, executive organisations and a number of cultural institutions, following our report.”

Research into execution

“I've developed a measuring instrument with which you can get a view on how steering is functioning now, whether or not people are satisfied with that, when they are more satisfied AND what we can learn from that,” says Schillemans. “This instrument has now been used a number of times, in the Netherlands, in Norway and now also in Denmark.”

For this research, a questionnaire has been completed by over 400 executives of Danish executive organisations or education institutions. Besides that, a series of focus-group meetings was held with them. The research shows that a form of steering that looks more like stewardship – and starts with the intrinsic motivation of the one who carries out the task – works better.

That means that among other things, targets have to be set together and should not be imposed top down. Also, that organisations should have space to figure out by themselves how to realise these goals. Furthermore, it turned out that educational institutions were significantly less satisfied with the way of steering than big executive organisations. And finally, our research showed that steering in the Netherlands is much stronger based on corporate performance assessment than in Denmark. "

Out of the fear of professionals not making the right choices, an environment that rewards them for strategic behaviour is created

Thomas Schillemans

Stewardship in the public sector

Thomas Schillemans argues in favour of “stewardship” in the public sector: “I've translated the theoretic model of ‘stewardship’ to the public sector and developed it further for this purpose. What does that entail?

I would like to compare it to the example of the house painter. If you hire a painter, you make clear agreements on the colour of the wall, how long the painter is going to work on it and how much that costs. You usually don't want the painters themselves to come up with a colour. On the other hand, you're often not very good at assessing by yourself how much work it actually implies. So in this case, there is a strategic tension in the negotiations, as we have (partially) opposing interests. We call this the ‘principal-agent’ model.

That is, somewhat exaggerated, the model at play in the public sector. As the trust isn't fully there, people in Denmark, just like in the Netherlands, look at cost-price funding, product agreements, degree funding and other forms of output funding. Because you're actually afraid that university staff are otherwise ‘asleep behind their desks instead of teaching.’ In order to ‘force’ schools to actually do something with the 1040 hours of class they were assigned. But these measures are often experienced as ‘trust-destroying’ by everyone subject to them, and they lead to strategic behaviour. So out of the fear of professionals not making the right choices, an environment that rewards them for strategic behaviour is created.

But if you reasoning from stewardship, you're actually assuming that the person who carries out a task is intrinsically motivated to do it right. If the house painter is kind of a Michelangelo and you let him or her paint the Sistine Chapel, you have a very different situation and you need a completely different form of steering. I can't tell this painter how that ceiling has to be painted, that's not going to work. I also don't have to look whether he or she is actually doing the work, but I probably have to protect the painter from working overtime.”

Verbally confirming that someone does a good job. That is free form of steering.

“But how do you steer an intrinsically motivated execution? How can you nourish and enhance their motivation? In any case, not by just handing the money and saying ‘Good luck, I hope it'll work out.’ Trust isn't the same as doing nothing. Of course, you make certain agreements. You support the professional. For instance, the minister only has to say: ‘You've done a great job,’ – right when that happens. Such a reward is very simple, but research shows again and again that it works very well. That is a free form of steering. But you still rarely see this being played out, as shown by the Danish research and the one from the Netherlands before that. Ministries issue all kinds of assignments to the executives, but if these assignments are successful, which actually happens quite often, there is often little explicit appreciation for it from the ministries. The research also shows that if it happens more often, people feel proud and will experience the steering as being better.”

There has to be a “more productive concerted action” between policy and execution

Trust reform


The project in Denmark does not stand by itself. “In Sweden, they’ve spent the past few years working on a ‘trust reform’, with a ‘trust commissioner for the government’,” Schillemans explains. This commissioner had to ensure that trust in and by the executive organisations was increased. In the Netherlands, the amplification of trust is also an explicit goal of the Ministries of the Interior and Finance. They experience that both between executive organisations and ministry, between civil servants and politics as well as between civilians and government, trust is being destroyed, despite the fact that there is a form of steering. Dutch governments also have the feeling that we should go towards forms of steering that increases trust.

Our research is also relevant to the Netherlands, of course, where the execution is under quite some pressure. This week also saw the publication of the evaluation research into the frameworks for independent executive organisations, which we worked on together with the advisory agency AEF. Here, too, we draw the important conclusion that there should be a ‘more productive concerted action’ between policy and execution. Hopefully, the new cabinet wants to work on this seriously!”

More information

Please read the full report Strengthened Stewardship.

Would you like to know more about this research? If you do, please contact Thomas Schillemans: