This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop solutions now and for the future.
Trust in government is complex and can’t be taken for granted: in contrast with other types of regimes, public trust in open democracies is freely given. It fluctuates over time and according to circumstances, cultures and contexts. And, most importantly, it requires constant nurturing. To meet citizens’ evolving expectations, governments need to know where they are succeeding and failing in their relationship with them. They must have the courage to lift up even the heaviest of rocks, look under them and expose problems to the light. That is what makes democracies strong, resilient and ready to face the challenges of the future.
The new OECD report Building Trust to Reinforce Democracy does just that, with over 50,000 respondents from 22 OECD countries joining this collective exercise. In a transparent effort to shore up public trust, countries wanted to better understand where citizen confidence is wavering and remains solid—and what needs to be done to close the gap. In most countries, the Survey took place between 18 months and 2 years into the COVID-19 pandemic and before the unprovoked Russian aggression against Ukraine.
What did we learn?
- Public confidence in national government is now evenly split. As countries fight to emerge from the largest health, economic and social crisis in decades, 41.4% of respondents say they trust their national government, compared to 41.1% who say they do not. Levels of trust are slightly higher than in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis.
- Most people feel that government is reliable. On average across countries, most people feel that, even during times of crisis, their government is reliably delivering core public services such as education (57.6%) and health (61.7%); enabling easy access to information on administrative procedures (65.1%); and protecting personal data (51.1%). Only a third (32.6%) are concerned that governments would not be prepared for a future pandemic.
- Public trust varies across institutions. The police (67.1%), courts (56.9%), civil service (50.2%) and local government (46.9%) garner higher levels of public trust than national governments (41.4%) and parliaments (39.4%).
- Governments could do better in responding to citizens’ concerns and tackling issues that are important to them, like climate change. While 50.4% think governments should be doing more to reduce climate change, only 35.5% are confident that countries will actually succeed in reducing their country’s contribution to climate change. Less than a third of citizens feel they have a say in what government does (30.2%).
- Generational, educational, income, gender and regional gaps in trust indicate that progress can be made to improve participation and representation for all. Disadvantaged groups with less access to opportunity and voice, whether real or perceived, have lower levels of trust in government. Women and people with less education and lower incomes tend to trust the government less. Youth also have lower trust in government than older people, with a trust gap of almost 10 percentage points in surveyed OECD countries. These gaps may reflect the negative impact that wider societal inequalities are having on public trust, as well as their role in fuelling partisanship and polarisation. The report shows, for example, that people who did not vote for their country’s incumbent government are far less likely to trust it.
- Public perception of government integrity is an issue. On average across countries, slightly less than half of citizens (47.8%) think a high-level political official would grant a political favour in exchange for the offer of a well-paid private sector job. Around a third (35.7%) think that a public employee would accept money in exchange for speeding up access to a public service.
As Alexis de Toqueville said so wisely two centuries ago, “Agitation and mutability are inherent in the nature of democratic republics”. Indeed, the vibrancy of our democracies springs from the tension between public contentment and discontent, and they draw their strength from governments’ ability to rise to respond to changing circumstances and evolving citizen needs.
The OECD’s Trust Survey contributes to this collective effort to make democracies more responsive and resilient so that they can deliver better policies and better lives for all citizens.