Trust in Government

Trust in Government

There are many complex lessons to be drawn from studying trust in government over the past 20 years, but one is very simple: of all the institutions, political leadership has usually been the least trusted.

Collated results from the Edelman Trust Barometer since 2012 show that while trust in government among the general population has in fact risen from 33 percent to 47 percent, it remains less trusted globally than the media and much less than NGOs or business.

In countries deemed by independent analysis to be the most democratic – in other words countries where people are most empowered to question, criticize, and challenge their political leaders at the ballot box – trust in government is an average of 35 percent. By contrast, in the least democratic countries where leaders are immune to the will of an electorate, trust is much higher, at an average of 59 percent. The lesson is that when we have a real chance to judge our leaders, we have found them wanting.

Politicians have failed to live up to their people’s expectations of them.

Why should this be?

Certainly, during the last few years, many countries, even those with strong democratic traditions, have elected leaders whose rhetoric pours scorn on “elites” and establishments.

Energetically portraying things in terms of black and white – the likes of Erdogan, Putin, Trump, Bolsanaro, most recently Johnson in the U.K. – not only stirs anger against the status quo, but also creates and enlarges division within societies. It simplifies things into good and evil, right and wrong. In presenting a narrative that the most complex problems can be wished away with simplistic solutions, such leadership encourages populations to distrust anyone who presents a more pragmatic and nuanced view.

It is easy for those strongman leaders to present the building of bridges as a sign of weakness and to taint “compromise” as a dirty word.

The truth is that trust is built on compromise. You cannot expect trust to flourish in an environment where the “others” are never right and so never heard. Neither democracy nor trust will prosper when a majority rules at the expense of the minority.

However, I think there is a deeper problem.

Where trust in governments has declined, it is because our global governance has failed. The electorates of nations around the world have not been able to elect people who have the power to solve the issues that our planet needs to solve – climate change, cybercrime, terrorism, war. That is for a simple reason and it is not to do with competence as much as the fact that the most potent challenges we face are ones that cross all borders. Acting on their own, no single government or leader can hope to reassure their people on such global threats and therefore build trust in their competence.

Unsurprisingly, when politicians are seen to be unable to solve problems, trust in them declines.

People like myself who believe in the power of politics to provide answers have to set our minds to proving that it can be done, but we will have to do so by proving the model of supranational governance can do better than it has done in the past. I believe that the E.U., to take one example, has never really been given the power to cope with transnational problems.

The units of actual political power tend still to be national and therefore are simply not big enough to address these supranational issues. Yet while the nation state is too small to work in a globalized era, its participation is vital to make international bodies work. It is vital, for instance, that countries support the UN Sustainable Development Goals or the COP targets on carbon emissions.

Where global institutions have been lacking, local ones have stepped in. One of the significant changes in government has been the power accrued – or assumed – by cities and states operating within countries. If the mayor, governor or state legislature has an agenda, she or he has found there’s no point waiting for national policy. Even on issues such as climate that naturally lend themselves to national, even global, intervention, it’s been cities and states that have been leading the way on emissions policy, recycling, carbon capture through tree planting and an accelerated timetable for net zero. Increasingly, cities and states are seeing that they can take on policies addressing issues such as technology and the economy that historically sat with the federal or national government. The US House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s enduring observation that “all politics is local” is proving increasingly true for government and trust, too.

Of course, all politicians could have been better at the job they have done, but in the future we have to make a better case for exchanging some further degrees of sovereignty in order to delegate the power to effect real change for the better. That is what trust is for.

And it seems obvious that governments cannot do this alone. The Edelman Trust Barometer showed trust in business overtaking trust in governments many years ago and more recently surpassing trust in NGOs. Between 2012 and 2020, the gap between the credibility of CEOs and of heads of government grew from 8 percentage points to a record 15 points. Moreover, globally, trust in “my employer” at 76 percent among the general population is around 30 points higher than trust in government.

Of course, the jury has been out on capitalism since the financial crisis. People have lost a well-established faith in the market economy. All of us who are engaged in market economics in any way, as individuals or as corporations or as politicians, need urgently to ask how we can restore that faith. A good start would be when actions are visible that back up the welcome words of collaborative bodies such as the Business Roundtable, which recently pledged to redefine the purpose of corporations.

So long as a compelling argument is made for the value of market economies in fighting issues such as income inequality and unemployment, business can clearly play a role in rebuilding trust in the developed nations where it is so much weaker.

So what might be the practical answer to the deficit in trust in government? Surely it is about more cooperation? Countries can cooperate more with each other in supranational bodies to counter threats such as the mass movement of people displaced by conflict. Governments can lend support to businesses which are committed to resetting the nature of capitalism. Working together, they can reduce inequality, mitigate the effects of technological progress on employment, and develop fair systems of corporate taxation that share the burdens of funding each nation’s vital infrastructure.

I am a born optimist and I think these things can be done. I think we can resist nationalism and populism and make compromise and cooperation the dominant features of our political world again, but we do have to recognize that it is five minutes to midnight. It is already obvious that the younger generation is not super-impressed with how we have managed things.

There is a further area for cooperation: between those who hold power and those who feel powerless. Our children need to be heard. The mass populations of every country – those who show a frightening gap in trust from the wealthier sectors of society – need to be heard.

Only when political leaders resist the siren voice of isolation and begin to work again in a spirit of cooperation with each other, with business and with our peoples, will trust in government be fully restored

Helle Thorning-Schmidt was Prime Minister of Denmark from 2011-15 and CEO of Save the Children from 2016-2019