The long road to
60% of citizens do not trust their government, compromising the willingness of citizens and business to respond to public policies
Even in countries with the highest levels of trust, up to one in fourcitizens do not trust their government is doing the right thing
All over the world the authority of government is being eroded. There is a sense that citizens are beginning to doubt whether government actually can make a difference in their lives.
Communication Leader, Africa
Government relies on the consent and trust of the people: the more government is trusted, the more it can do. Unsurprising then, falling levels of trust in government is cited by government leaders who took part in this research as the key issue facing government communicators. They believe a lack of trust is:
- Limiting cut-through of government messages
- Inhibiting two-way dialogue
- Contributing to detachment and disengagement from government
- Inhibiting the success of policies that depend on behavioural responses from the public.
Respondents to The Leaders' Report share a global sense that trust in government has declined dramatically. However, very few have metrics or measures that prove it – and without measurement it is difficult to address. Their sense that trust has fallen concurs with extensive research carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which concludes that a lack of trust is compromising the willingness of citizens and business to respond to public policies and contribute to a sustainable economic recovery.5
Worldwide, only 40% of citizens trust their government. Even in countries with the highest levels of public trust – such as the United Arab Emirates and Singapore – as many as one citizen in four professes to distrust their government.6
The reasons cited by respondents for the decline in trust vary:
- Some see it as a predictable result of the shift from an "age of deference" to an "age of reference", which has been accelerated by the internet and social media
- Others trace a trajectory or linear series of events leading from Watergate through 9/11 to the rise of Donald Trump as a politician
- Some cite it as the result of the cumulative impact that more isolated events such as the global financial crisis, WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers have had on public discourse
- Others believe that the internet has enabled the exponential growth and circulation of conspiracy theories, creating a general distrust of those in positions of authority and the information that supports them.
The majority of communication leaders who took part in the research describe a pattern of "disconnection and dishonesty" between politicians and the public that is culminating in an era perhaps best labelled as
- Post-truth: the rise of a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored7
- Post-democratic: the entrenchment of a small elite within democratic countries that is taking decisions by co-opting democratic institutions8
- Post-post democratic: the move towards citizens increasingly forming their own organised and unorganised social movements, often online, as a response to widespread alienation from established political frameworks.
7"The post-truth world: yes, I'd lie to you," The Economist Sept 10, 2016; Post-truth was announced as Oxford English Dictionary's 2016 word of the year, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the year-2016
8 Colin Crouch, Policy Network 2011 "Is there a liberalism beyond social democracy?"
The potential driver of this "disconnection" is illustrated in our data: respondents report low levels of citizen-centricity and understanding. Only 40% of respondents describe their colleagues as "citizen focused". Only 26% agree that the voice of the citizen is taken into account in key decisions. Such low levels of citizen focus translate into communication that feels ill-tuned to the public's needs, re-enforcing the sense distrust and detachment.
"The Churchillian culture of telling the truth is now in the minority in Europe." – Communication Academic, Western Europe
"The times are crying out for genuine, inspired, honest leadership: governments absolutely need to be braver and much more honest." – Communication Leader, Multilateral Organisation
Respondents also cite confusion between what is political communication and what is public communication as a cause of declining levels of trust. As formerly clear boundaries are blurred, many respondents believe citizens are losing clarity between what is partisan and what is non-partisan.
The result is that a significant proportion of communication from government is viewed through a prism of electoral motivations rather than public service motivations. Respondents believe this is increasing public cynicism and disengagement.
Communication leaders also see the issue of falling trust as the result of rising incomes and rising expectations, something we have termed Amazon Syndrome: citizens can now access what they want, whenever they want it, a standard of personalisation and customer service that current models of government service are unable to match.
What can be done?
We believe that rebuilding a positive and trusting relationship with citizens is critical for effective governance. And while communication alone will not resolve the problem of declining trust in government, it can play an important role.
There is no single model to reverse or halt the decline in trust that has occurred over recent decades. Significant regional differences exist in the root causes of distrust. Very few responses have wide-spread application. However, there is broad agreement from respondents that rebuilding trust will require greater:
- Openness: improving real-time access to government and those who govern
- Inclusiveness: involving citizens, listening to and acknowledging their concerns, even where governments are unable to act on those concerns
- Responsiveness: improving the quality of and access to public services
- Reliability: delivering commitments and getting the "hygiene factors" right (if citizens can't trust their government with basic tasks such as public safety, they're unlikely to trust it with more complicated task such as data security and pensions management).
Generally, improving responsiveness and reliability lies outside the remit of communication functions. But government communicators have a legitimate responsibility to advise policymakers and politicians on how best to assure citizens that their needs and desires are being taken into account and, where this is not possible, to provide advice on how best to minimise any backlash. Frustratingly, few communication leaders are positioned to provide advice on such matters.
Tools and approaches that can help
We offer a range of classic and innovative research, data and analytics services that help governments and public bodies understand how they are perceived and connect better with citizens. These include:
- Reputational models, reputation tracking and argument testing
- Public opinion tracking and election research
- Public policy research
- Large-scale deliberative engagement techniques
- Tracking and longitudinal cohort studies
- Sophisticated media and social media monitoring and analytics
- Real-time dashboards.
One to watch: reputation models
A range of models exist that help governments understand how they are perceived. However, many of the measures they use are one dimensional, focusing on a single facet of reputation (for example, only trust or only performance). They give an indication of the what, but say little about the why.
Colmar Brunton's Public Sector Reputation Index in New Zealand:
- Assesses a wide range of reputation attributes: service delivery; financial responsibility; innovation; management and leadership; governance; employee commitment; social and environmental impact; and communications
- Groups them under four pillars: leadership and success; fairness; social responsibility; and trust
- Weights each against its potential to improve advocacy. This enables governments to benchmark their performance and prioritise areas for improvement.