The 2020s Challenge

Government – particularly government in Western-style democracies – has been the big loser of the public’s trust over the past 20 years. Confidence that the system works, that society is fair, that the future is secure has given way to fear. Uncertainty has eroded the expectation that the coming generation will live more prosperous lives than their parents.

In the West, inequality, time-poverty and the rising cost of living has sapped belief in capitalism and stoked the sense that power and opportunity are drifting to the East. Technology has empowered the individual, displacing the old voices of authority, creating networks that tell you what you want to know, crowding the public square with taunts, exaggerations, and lies, all of which tests faith in the political system. Natural disasters have helped convince people of the climate emergency, cementing frustration at a vacuum of leadership.

True enough, people’s trust in all institutions has actually increased since Edelman began tracking trust 20 years ago. But the past two decades of trust data sound an alarm and, if they go unheeded, there’s worse to come. So, what can we expect of the 2020s?

In many ways, more of the same. Technological disruption that wrong-foots incumbents. New means of communication that erode the old media. Easternization that offers an alternative to U.S. pre-eminence from technology to finance, infrastructure to culture, environment to security. Automation of processes that spreads across the private sector, transforming industry and services, and into healthcare, education, and welfare. Private, encrypted communications networks that distort the marketplace of media, information, and debate. And migration of large numbers of people that’s spiked by extreme weather conditions and chasms of economic opportunity.

But the challenges to trust are a call to action – and people are stepping up to answer it. Trust in business is up. In recent years, business has responded to the public’s call for greater ethical and effective leadership by showing it. This is a profound shift. It’s happened because business is responding to the public’s call for greater involvement in addressing societal issues. No doubt, too, people trust “people like me” and they find them most often in the workplace. But it’s also clear that business’s sense of mission has changed in the 2010s, as so many of the chief executives of the world’s largest companies have been willing to define a purpose for the business over and above the bottom line.

Purpose, to be sure, has its limits. Business can only address what it controls. The sneaking suspicion of CEOs is that expectations will run beyond what they can deliver. For example, even those whose companies can get to net-zero carbon emissions in a hurry can’t pretend that they can create a carbon price, reprioritize international energy generation and distribution, or accelerate innovation in carbon capture and storage. Those are jobs that only lawmakers and regulators can do. But employees, customers, and society at large expect more of corporate leadership today and, increasingly, they are getting it.

The 2020s promise to be a decade of activism. There’ll be more popular activism – i.e., community groups, public campaigns, and networks of people fighting for their environment and the planet, for their identities, safety on the streets, justice in the system and for opportunity and integrity at work. There’ll be a new wave of financial activism – i.e., company pension funds, college endowments, state-backed savings programs, charitable trusts will be harnessed to put pressure on business, government and the media. And there’ll be much more local activism – i.e., states and cities within countries will take it upon themselves to deliver for their citizens, where the national government is falling short.

This activism need not just be something done to the big four institutions of government, business, media, and NGOs. It can and should be done by them. And while none of the four institutions can afford to wait for the others to act, the more they do so in concert the better.

For government, activism is going to mean addressing the disruptors: technology, globalization, automation and data, information platforms and carbon emissions. It’s self-evident that the governments that can harness the accelerating changes of the 21st century in the interests of their citizens will be rewarded with trust. So far, it has been the governments of Asia, generally technocratic and interventionist that have been willing to do so.

Seattle, Washington, 2018

Shoppers experience Amazon Go, the first cashier- and queue-free store. They use an app on their phone to gain entry, AI sensors detect what goods they take and Amazon charges their account.

The challenge for the West in the 2020s is how it takes up the task of building a digital public square that prizes truth or plans for the good aging of its people or invests in the reskilling of workers set to be displaced by intelligent machines.

In much the way that business has been recognized for stepping into a new age of executive activism, the credibility of democratic government in the 2020s is going to depend on a renewal of its purpose, an activism rooted in a vision of the world and the capabilities to deliver on it. This is easier to say than to do. But, as we have seen, the price of administrative bureaucracy and elite complacency is a fundamental loss of trust.

As with government, there are no easy fixes for the media. Like government, too, it knows more of the same won’t work. Media activism will need to take two forms.

On the one hand, even the social media platforms are now calling for regulation. This need not mean an Orwellian state policing free expression. But it can and should mean the expectation of public standards of accuracy, accountability, and diversity of views on digital platforms, just in the way that such standards were required of radio and television when they emerged as dominant mass media platforms. Those standards can be set by regulators and designed so that it’s up to the platforms themselves to meet them. They wouldn’t be the first utilities to have to figure out the complicated but important problem of meeting their social responsibilities: water companies are required to meet regulatory standards to ensure they don’t poison the well.

On the other hand, the media will have to fix itself. Like every other business, it’s going to have to innovate its way out of its reliance on old business models punctured by new media. And here’s the good news: it’s happening. Whether it’s the eruption in TV streaming services, the surge in listening to podcasts and digital assistants, the huge investments in international news networks or the wave of new news start-ups, there’s a revival in the information industries under way. The watch-out is that not everyone will have access to the new journalism. We are threatened with a two-tier information world in which only those who can afford it get reliable news.

Trust Requires Competence and Ethics

No institution is seen as both competent and ethical

x = competence score
y = net ethical score

Competent = greater than 0

Ethical = greater than 0

Less competent = less than 0

Unethical = less than 0

Perhaps the greatest mystery of the trust data of the past 20 years has been the relative underperformance of the NGOs. There’s hardly been a shortage of things for campaign organizations to do. But the NGOs arguably face a challenge that’s different to the ones that face the other three institutions. Yes, there have been scandals in the third sector. But, by and large, trust in the NGOs has been held back by a realization that these organizations do not have the resources and capabilities to tackle the problems they identify. This is not a problem of ethics, but efficacy. The 2020s present a more existential problem for the NGOs, then, than they would probably like to admit. Proving their worth is about delivering change, which requires them to change themselves. If they don’t, they risk being relegated to admirers of the problem, rather than answers to it.

Trust is out of balance. The big four societal institutions are interdependent entities, but, outside of the developing markets of Asia, the balance between them is nearly as important as good functioning at the individual institution level. Business can be doing great, but if government does not hold up its end, you can’t have a healthy society. The same is true for media or NGOs.

Plotted on a grid, the imbalance is easy to see: no one institution is considered to be both competent and ethical. Government and media are currently considered ineffective and unethical; business is highly effective, but not ethical enough. NGOs are the most highly regarded for doing the right thing, but they are not considered good at getting things done. What is especially clear is that the four institutions live far apart from one another, hampering cooperation and collaboration.

But when we examine the same criteria only among people who do trust the institutions, the landscape is much different. In this ideal trust state, the four entities sit much closer together, primed for partnership. Currently, government is far less trusted than business, but when it is fully trusted, it is considered both more effective and more ethical than business – which it should be, considering that one of its primary roles is to serve as business’s watchdog.

The old adage that trust is easy to lose and hard to earn is true. In fact, the price of progress in modern times is that it’s easier and quicker to lose and it’s harder and takes longer to earn. The political and media forces pushing us apart, destroying reputations and vandalizing institutions are increasingly powerful.

But the traffic is not all one way. Those who take action can and do win the trust of those around them. Social capital, the asset identified by Francis Fukuyama as the key ingredient of success in our hyper-competitive age, is going to be more prized and more powerful. In the past 20 years, we have seen a fracturing of trust, but an increase in its value. Trust has emerged, like freedom and security, as itself a barometer of a successful society

Edelman Trust Barometer 2001-2020

Key facts

    295,000+ respondents total across all markets and years

  • Phone survey from 2001-2008
  • Online survey from 2009-2020

    Analysis based on

  • 13 yrs informed public 35-64 data, 16 markets
  • 8 yrs general population data, 16 markets
  • 5 yrs general population data, 23 markets

    and additional country analysis of

  • 20 yrs informed public 35-64 data, U.S., Australia, and E.U. (aggregate of U.K., France, and Germany) (2001-2020)
  • 15 yrs informed public 35-64 data, Canada, Brazil, China, and Japan (2005-2020)
  • 14 yrs informed public 35-64 data, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain, and the U.K. (2006-2020)

The respondents

    General population (2012-2020)

  • 1,000 respondents per market (2012-2015)
  • 1,150 respondents per market (2016-2020)
  • Ages 18+
  • All general population data is fully weighted. Unless otherwise noted, slides show general population data.

16-market global data margin of error

General population +/- 0.7% to 0.8% (n=min 16,000; n=max 18,400, varies by year),
informed public 35-64 +/- 1.6% to 2.0% (n=min 2,356; n=max 3,896, varies by year), mass population +/- 0.8% to 0.9% (n=min 13,236; n=max 15,860, varies by year), half-sample global general population +/- 1.0% to 1.1% (n=min 8,000; n=max 9,200 varies by year).

16-market global data margin of error

General population +/- 2.9% to 3.1% (n=min 1,000; n=max 1,150, varies by year), informed public 35-64 +/- 4.5% to 13.6% (n=min 52; n=max 478, varies by market), mass population +/- 3.0% to 3.6% (n=min 735; n=max 1,104, varies by market).