Ipsos MORI Thinks

A contract under strain – trust in government and politics

GIDEON SKINNER Research Director

If there is a crisis of trust anywhere, it is to be found in public attitudes towards government and politics. Consistently, trust ratings in the institutions and individuals who run our countries are some of the lowest that we see, compared against other institutions and other professions, and there are signs of long-term decline in several countries where data exists. At the same time, a closer look at the survey data suggests that trust in government and politics was never very high. It is also very different in different countries, for different branches of government, and trends over the last 10-20 years are less clear-cut than the longer-term pattern. This means it is vital to have a more sophisticated understanding of what trust in government actually means, and what specific aspects are driving discontent, rather than simply calling out a ‘crisis’.

Trends in trust

The oldest survey trends of trust in government are found in the US, and here there is evidence of long-term decline. In the 1950s and 1960s a majority said they trusted the government in Washington most of the time, according to Pew, but this took a sharp drop in the 1970s to only one in three. It rose again in the 1980s (though not to its former heights), fell again in the 1990s, rose and fell again. For the last decade it has been consistently low, at only around one in five, but it has not changed significantly over that time. Although trust reached equally poor levels for a short time in the 1990s, this is the longest period trust has been this low – again suggesting it could be a chronic issue. There are also declines in other countries around the world – especially Latin America, according to Latinobarometer – and also in the World Values Survey, where of the eight countries measured consistently between 1981 and 2010, six saw falls in confidence in their parliament.

Having said that, as with the US, the trend over the shorter-term period is less clear, which reflects different debates within the academic literature.44 Again looking at the World Values Survey, more countries saw a rise or no change in confidence in their government between the 1990s and 2010s than saw a fall. The average levels of trust in parliament in Africa, according to Afrobarometer, have also been fairly stable, although with a small decline in recent years.

Since the turn of the millennium, and similar to other aspects of trust, Europe shows a more mixed picture. According to Eurobarometer, of the 18 countries surveyed between 2001 and 2018, eight showed a fall in trust in government overall, but another seven showed no change or even a rise – especially in wealthier Northern and Western European countries such as Austria, Germany and Sweden. Europe as a whole also shows recent signs of recovery from the nadir in public trust in government in the post – 2010 period, although this hides individual country variation.

Nevertheless, there are limitations to relying solely on survey evidence to measure trust in government. Long-term trends are patchy and only exist for a few countries, and question wordings are often different, or either emphasise one aspect of trust or leave it undefined. This makes drawing precise conclusions difficult, and can sometimes even lead to what appear to be contradictory results.

A case study: the United Kingdom

The UK is a good candidate for exploring the different trends in trust because of its long history in survey research. One
well-known measure of trust in government is the question asked by the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA): “How much do you trust British governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party?” This question was first asked more than 30 years ago, and shows that the proportion of people who say they trust the government at least most of the time has fallen from 40% in 1986 to 22% in 2016 (although the biggest fall was in the period up to the turn of the century; since the mid-2000s it has been relatively stable, albeit at a low level). The European Values Survey also saw a fall in confidence in parliament in Great Britain over the long term, from 41% in 1981 to 23% in 2010. Furthermore, there is evidence of growing discontent with the political system from the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement, which shows that the proportion of people who think the present system of governing Britain needs “a great deal of improvement” has risen from 18% in 2003 to 37% in 2018.

On the other hand, figures from Eurobarometer and the European Social Survey suggest that Britons’ trust in government, parliament, political parties and politicians are very similar in 2018 to where they were at the start of the millennium, and indeed show some signs of improvement from lows in the 2009-2011 period. Over the longer term, Ipsos MORI also collects regular monthly satisfaction ratings for how well the government is running the country, which we can use to compare the performance of governments in the eyes of the public over the last 40 years. Comparing these figures seems to show little evidence of declining public satisfaction with British governments – each individual government suffers a fall over its lifetime, but overall the trendline has hardly moved.

Some of the differences between all these measures can be explained by different time periods – there is some evidence of a long-term decline, but little change in more recent years (and even some small signs that the nadir after the financial crash has been passed). Of course there are also differences in question wording and methodology that need to be borne in mind. But it is also important to understand that trust is such a broad concept that it needs to be unpacked – these different measures may be picking up on different aspects of trust.

A classic distinction in political science, first made by Easton in 1965,45 is between specific support and diffuse support. Specific support measures support for the government of the day and its performance, diffuse support is confidence in the wider political system and its principles. These concepts have been discussed and amended over the years, and a third element (see Jennings et al 2015)46 is that of political alienation, which they define as “alienation from the operation of the political system” (for example, through feelings of lack of influence, distrust in the motives of political leaders, that the political system operates by rules that make little sense and are unpredictable, and that the values of the political establishment are seen as fundamentally different to those of some of its citizens). Thus, the rise in discontent may reflect the ‘system is broken’ sentiment that Ipsos research has shown is related to the rise in so-called populist views around the world.47 Simply focusing on ‘a crisis of trust’ in politics does not answer the question of why, nor does it explain if falls in trust are because of failures elsewhere in the way governments are delivering for their citizens.

So there are signs that trust in government has been getting worse in some countries over the long-term, but the picture is not negative for every country. It’s also important to remember that trust in government and politics has never been very high. As we have seen, the first big falls in trust in government were first noted in the 1970s, along with academic papers with headlines such as Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki’s ‘The Crisis of Democracy’ in 1975. Across the 20 or so countries in the first World and European Values Surveys (WVS and EVS) in the early 1980s, on average only around half said they had confidence in their parliament.

Another example of this is in Ipsos MORI’s Veracity Index, which has been running in Britain since 1983. In the very first wave, government ministers and politicians were only trusted to tell the truth by 16% and 18% respectively, putting them right at the bottom of the list along with journalists and trade union officials. In the 2018 survey they again made up two of the bottom three, trusted by 22% and 19% respectively. There have been other movers during that time though, one of which is civil servants, whose trust rating has risen hugely from 25% to 62%. This brings us to another finding from the data which we consider below – trust in different parts of government and politics is not the same.

Trust is different for different institutions

Throughout this report, we have argued that you can’t take a blanket approach to trust – you need to be specific about what aspect you are talking about. This applies to government and politics just as much as for any other institution. There seems to be a pattern whereby local institutions and civil servants are trusted more than elected parliaments and governments, with politicians and their parties trusted least of all. In the latest rounds of both WVS and EVS, the civil service gets the fewest people saying they have no confidence in them at all, followed by government and parliament, rising to around three in ten on average who say they have no confidence at all in political parties. The order is similar in the most recent 2018 Eurobarometer survey, as shown in the chart overleaf, which shows trust is highest for regional/local authorities and public administration, followed by supra-national bodies such as the UN and EU, then national governments and parliaments, and bottom of the table political parties once again.

This not only suggests we have to be precise about what we mean when we talk about trust in government, but that we also have to break down our understanding of trust into specific factors to be able to pinpoint why certain arms of government do better than others, and what can be done to improve it.

What drives trust in government?

Analysis of Ipsos’ Global Trustworthiness Monitor shows a relatively strong model of the specific factors that are associated with feeling your government is trustworthy. The pattern is similar to the other public and private institutions tested, but is more robust for government, explaining more of the variance in people’s views. Particularly important are perceptions of a government’s intentions, responsibility and keeping its promises, but a range of other factors also make a difference, including its competence and whether it is well led.

There are overlaps between this model and the OECD’s framework for understanding citizens’ trust in public institutions.48 This takes two foundations of trust – competence and values – and identifies five critical dimensions of trust: 1) providing quality public services, and responsiveness to citizens’ needs, 2) reliability in the face of changing needs, and minimising uncertainty, 3) behaving with integrity, 4) openness in dealing with citizens and 5) fairness in treating citizens equally and improving living standards for all.

It is also useful to compare how well citizens around the world rate their government on these individual factors compared with the average across eight sectors as a whole (media, public services, technology companies, banks, pharmaceutical, oil and gas, and food companies). As we would expect given its low overall trust scores, government tends to do worse on most of these factors (although it is not seen as much more likely to take advantage of people than many private sector companies). But government does particularly badly on three key aspects: being good at what it does, being well led, and being reliable/keeping its promises.

Qualitative analysis by Jennings et al (2015)49 also suggests that which factors of trust in politics are most dominant can change over time. Comparing verbatim responses from the Mass Observation Archive from 1945-50 and in 2014, they find that both periods share perceptions that politicians are not straight-talking, out for personal gain, and so on. But in 2014, views of politicians as out-of-touch with ordinary people have become more prominent, with a greater focus on their personality, and concerns about their integrity prompted by the expenses scandal of 2009. Which means that even with long-running time series of survey data, we need to be sensitive to how conceptions of trust, and the factors that drive it, may change.

Conclusion: a long-term issue needing multiple solutions

In conclusion, then, it’s no surprise to see politicians and the media regularly talking about the need to rebuild trust in government and politics. Indeed, as this is a decades-old problem, they have been doing so for years. But simply talking in general terms about a crisis in trust isn’t enough and is in danger of missing the real reasons why so many people around the world are unhappy with the way their countries are run.

Our analysis shows that the most important steps would be to consider exactly how governments can better deliver outcomes for all their citizens; address public scepticism about their intentions and enhance connections with ordinary people (even if this is always likely to be a feature of modern democracies); and demonstrate that they can keep their promises.

Given a deficit trust has been a chronic condition of modern societies for some time, attempts to address it will need to be consistent and long term. Rather than focusing just on trust as a generic measure, we need to understand exactly why trust and confidence is so low, and why it is better in some countries and for some parts of government than others, if we are to come up with a solution.

“In the US, confidence in banks has fallen from 32% in 1975 to 14% in 2016VII”

Trust: The Truth?

We decided to write this report because we wanted to test if the prevailing narrative matched the data. The ‘truth about trust’ is that trust is complex, and takes many forms (many of these forms are not in crisis or decline). Without some degree of trust society simply would not function…