The Decline of Public Trust in Government – What does this mean during a pandemic?
Over the past few decades, countries across the globe have experienced a declining trust in government and their institutions (Dalton, 2007; Lind, 2018; Murtin et al., 2018). Generally, there seems to be an increasing skepticism of government (Dalton, 2007) – people do not seem to think their governments work in their interest. The most concerning aspect of this is that the distrust seems to be most prevalent towards national government (Lind, 2018).
With vaccines for COVID-19 rolling out in countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada, is the decreasing level of general public trust going to be an issue for implementation? How is the government going to effectively implement a national vaccine plan if their citizens are skeptical of their intentions? Trust in government was already quite low during ‘regular’ times – only “45% of citizens trusted their government in 2019” (Murtin et al., 2018) – one can only imagine how the pandemic has affected these levels of trust.
The level of trust citizens have in government institutions (Source: OECD, 2020)
The decline of trust: a historical event
Questions of trust in government are not new – in fact, this general skepticism can be traced back to the 1960s and ‘70s (Dalton, 2007). The government, aware of the growing criticism, introduced a variety of reforms in the ‘80s and ‘90s that sought to improve government efficiency, accountability, and transparency. Transparency became one of the primary solutions to address this issue with the assumption that increased knowledge of government processes and deliberation will ultimately increase understanding and trust in government (Grimmelikhuijsen et al., 2013). Countries around the world began developing freedom of information laws and proactive publication schemes in an effort to establish concrete mechanisms for transparency.
So why is it still declining?
This is still largely debated. Some argue that transparency can actually cause uncertainty and confusion among citizens (Grimmelikhuijsen, et al., 2013). Others turn towards unique historical events to explain the distrust in specific countries.
For example, the political scandals that arose in the ‘90s in England, and in the political tensions over nationality and Quebec in Canada (Dalton, 2007). More broadly, many refer to the economic crisis in 2008 that disrupted societies globally, as many experienced significant financial strain and rising unemployment levels. These large-scale disruptions generally result in a growing dissatisfaction with the government’s performance/response to the event, particularly amongst marginalized individuals or those most affected by the crisis (Murtin et al., 2018).
Finally, others point towards other influences on trust, such as individual factors (socioeconomic factors, individuals’ expectations, preferences, etc.), societal factors (community beliefs, values and practices), and institutional factors (perceived government competence, values, public service satisfaction, etc.) (Murtin et al., 2018; Song and Lee, 2015; (Grimmelikhuijsen et al., 2013).
While there is still uncertainty regarding what precise circumstances or factors cause trust to decline, there is a general consensus that trust is in fact declining and that we need to act upon it immediately.
The importance of trust during a pandemic
Trust in government is important, but this increases exponentially during a large-scale pandemic. Trust is the foundation for legitimacy and is absolutely vital for government’s ability to respond rapidly to crises and gain citizen support (Murtin et al., 2018). This is particularly the case when implementing restrictive policies during a pandemic. When citizens have greater trust in government, they are more likely to be willing to comply with health policies and measures, such as quarantining, testing, restrictions on gatherings, etc. (Devine et al., 2020).
With countries across the globe experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously, many resort to comparing one countries’ performance to the performance of others as a means of expressing satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their government’s response. If citizens believe their government’s response to-date has been unsatisfactory, they are unlikely to have faith in their government’s future vaccine roll-out plan. This is particularly the case for those who have personally experienced COVID-19 (either themselves or a close friend/family member), as suffering from the infection generally leads to dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the pandemic (Devine et al., 2020).
Not only that, trust is a significant component in risk management – it fundamentally impacts the public’s judgement of risks and benefits (van der Weerd et al., 2011). This becomes problematic when all of these components come together: when the public does not trust the government’s intentions, is unhappy with their performance to-date, and does not believe there is high risk associated with the coronavirus. “In the absence of trust, mandatory vaccination or punitive schemes may backfire” (Jamison et al., 2019). This situation is only worsened by the spread of misinformation that is observable on various social media platforms.
This is quite concerning because evidence from previous epidemics such as the Spanish flu demonstrate that the negative impact on trust persisted for many years (Devine et al., 2020). Levels of trust were already fairly low pre-pandemic – how much lower can they get? Will countries be able to recover after the pandemic?
Do you Trust the Government (Source: Cagle, 2013)
So, what can we do about it?
Well this begs the question: is trust permanent? Once you break someone’s trust, can you regain it? Does the skepticism remain forever? Or is it contextual?
In response to these questions, there are two statements that represent the difficulty of this situation. The first is that “trust must be given freely; it cannot be coerced” (Jamison et al., 2019, p. 93). The second is that “trust comes on foot and goes away on horseback” (Grimmelikhuijsen et al., 2013). While these statements seem relatively straightforward, they present governments with a difficult challenge ahead of them. With trust being easy to lose and hard to gain, how do governments rebuild public trust in their institutions?
In general, many modern governments are doing the job fairly well, but are not seen as doing so (Lind, 2018). Transparency has long been proposed as the solution to remedy the growing skepticism amongst the public. While transparency itself cannot whole-heartedly resolve the issue, it can play a big part. Transparency, especially now in the midst of a pandemic, is a key factor in (re)building trust.
For example, a recent survey in Mexico found that people who received more accurate data in terms of reporting deaths from COVID-19 were more likely to comply with the restrictive policies (such as social distancing guidelines), compared to those who did not have this data in a timely manner (Gutierrez et al. 2020).
Transparency provides citizens with the timely information they need to make their own informed decisions, which ultimately results in increased compliance with the recommended health measures.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, governments globally have responded in many different ways. Lockdowns, social distancing guidelines, stimulus packages and tax breaks, are just some of the measures adopted by governments.
With the rapid deployment of these COVID-19-related services and benefits, it is quite easy to be focused on the task at hand and forget who is on the receiving end. As negative experiences can be exponentially more impactful and detrimental to trust than positive ones can be, providing quality citizen-centred public services has never been more important. This means administering the law and providing services in a respectful, clear and engaging manner. While the actual provision of these services does matter, how people felt they were treated matters equally as much (Grimmelikhuijsen et al., 2013; Lind 2018).
Therefore, government reforms towards citizen-centred public services can have a significant impact on restoring trust as they result in higher levels of satisfaction and improvements in citizens’ perception of government competence (Murtin et al., 2018). In short, citizen-centred reforms can increase trust, one interaction at a time.
The pandemic has highlighted the decreasing public trust in diverse ways. Less than half of citizens trusted their government before the pandemic, this percentage is bound to plummet post-pandemic. However, it is not too late to take action and begin course-correction. Academic experts have outlined a variety of ways of rebuilding trust, two of which consist of transparency and reforms for citizen-centred services. These are but two possible solutions. Rebuilding trust will be a long and arduous task, but one that governments worldwide will need to take on.
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