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Eroding Trust: How governments’ image has changed across the world

Reading time: 3 minutes

The author investigates how citizens’ trust in governments has changed and what factors have been driving the changes. She describes and examines data, highlights critical junctures, and lays out alternative viewpoints that explain the changes.         

How much do you trust your government? How much do you think other people in your community trust your government? And how do you think trust in government in your community has evolved?

OECD (2021), Trust in government (indicator). doi: 10.1787/1de9675e-en (Accessed on 13 April 2021)

We can observe the change in trust in government during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession with OECD data from 2006-2020. On this chart, we see the share of respondents who answered “yes” (instead of “no” and “don’t know”) to the survey question “In this country, do you have confidence in the … national government?” in OECD countries (average), the United States, Germany, and Italy. I highlighted these three countries because they come from different public administration traditions and hence the differences in their trajectories of trust levels may be worthy of investigation.

            In the three cases, except for Germany, we see a clear dip in trust in 2013. For more information, we can refer to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which is an annual survey of trust in institutions. The survey to be analyzed for 2014 was conducted at the end of 2013, so it’s the 2014 Barometer that reflects public opinion for 2013. The online survey, carried out in 27 countries from all over the world, points to a decrease in trust in government, parallel to the OECD data. Trust in NGOs, on the other hand, increased in most of the countries in the sample over 2013, and in a large majority of those countries trust in business was higher than trust in government. In fact, trust in business had always been higher than trust in government for the informed public aged between 35 and 64 since 2003, where the sample for the informed public is composed of 500 respondents from the US, China, and 200 other countries.

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            But why do people trust NGOs and firms more than governments? To answer this question, we should dig deeper into the concept of trust. Edelman presents two dimensions of trust: ethical behavior (“doing the right thing and working to improve society”) and competence (“delivering on promises”). In the 2020 Barometer, governments scored lowest on both of these dimensions by a considerable margin.

            Public opinion has not always been like this. Pew Research Center‘s public trust in government data for the US from 1958 to 2019 demonstrates that in the first half of the 1960s, the percentage of Americans who trusted the government in Washington “just about always” or “most of the time” were above 70, yet it started declining in the second half, and since 1974 it has almost always been below 50%. The decline is usually attributed to the aggravation of the Vietnam War and politicians’ misrepresentation of it, the Watergate Scandal and unfavorable economic conditions of the 70s, which hint that once trust is lost, it is difficult to rebuild.

For other countries, we can refer to Russel J. Dalton’s 2004 book Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices, in which a large collection of cross-national public opinion is compiled to show how political support eroded in most advanced industrial democracies. Unlike many other authors, however, Dalton argues that this decline did not result from scandals, poor performance, and other government failures, but simply from the successful social modernization of these nations. Put simply, according to Dalton, it is social change that created the change in public opinion, not politicians’ actions.

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Dalton concludes that people now expect more from their governments, which makes the job of politicians more difficult but can also be a driving force of political reform. I believe the reform that will solve the issue of mistrust might be moving toward a more egalitarian structure of the state, where citizens are not mere recipients of public services but co-producers of them. Co-production transforms the relationship between the society and the state by removing the dichotomy between the public and public service workers. In this way, transparency is ensured, and cynicism toward the government is reduced. In a state where members of a community collectively make policy and exert peer control on each other, trust in government is restored as policies are not imposed by external forces but are a product of the communities’ desires and priorities.

Author profile

Cansu Süt is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Economic and Social Sciences at Bocconi University. She graduated in Economics from Bilkent University in 2020. She is passionate about political economy and behavioral economics. Formerly an arts and culture writer at GazeteBilkent, she is an art aficionado and enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages in her free time.

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