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Does public trust in government matter for effective policy-making?

Whether encouraging citizens to pay taxes, get vaccinated or obey the rule of law, governments can achieve more from compliance than coercion. Given recent political scandals around the world, including those in the UK, rebuilding trust will be vital for tackling future crises.

Trust is essential for governance, and it is therefore necessary for governments to build it among the public.

Many political economists see effective states as those stemming from ‘top-down’ directives by governments. Investments into state capacity by incumbents, such as establishing an effective bureaucracy, increase the range of policies a government can implement successfully. Citizen compliance with policies is either assumed or, alternatively, achieved via coercion by law enforcement.

A second approach to state building stresses the role of individuals. Here, citizens and the government work in a mutually reinforcing, reciprocal relationship (Besley, 2021). ‘Bottom-up’ private action can similarly enhance state effectiveness.

If government is perceived to be trustworthy, people will be more likely to comply with public policies via consent. Public trust in government and the state is therefore crucial for increasing voluntary compliance.

Governments can achieve more if they know that citizens trust that policy-makers have their best interests at heart. And while it is easy to see how public trust can be eroded, (re)building trust is pivotal and can be challenging.

The importance of public trust

Trust in government and the state matters for a variety of reasons. Primarily, it increases voluntary compliance towards public policies. If we think of state capacity broadly as ’the government’s ability to accomplish its intended policy goals’, it stands to reason that compliance serves an essential purpose (Dincecco, 2017).

The archetypal example of state capacity is fiscal capacity – referring to the state’s ability to increase tax revenues to fund public goods and services for society (Besley and Persson, 2011). Investments into fiscal capacity typically involve strengthening bureaucracies and establishing fair and transparent tax systems, part of which involves improved monitoring. Citizen compliance with paying one’s taxes is therefore a direct function of the state’s oversight and reach to enforce tax policy (Allingham and Sandmo, 1972).

At the same time, if people think that tax revenues are well spent on public goods and services – with government proving its trustworthiness against profligacy as a result – this should increase society’s intrinsic willingness to pay taxes (Levi, 1988). In economics, this is sometimes known as ‘tax morale’ (Luttmer and Singhal, 2014).

Trust in government is crucial to establishing norms of compliance towards taxes (OECD, 2019). And compliance via consent, as opposed to compulsion, is a substantially cheaper method to implement effective policies (Tyler, 2006).

Supporting fiscal capacity via tax morale is one example of how voluntary compliance enhances state capacity via trust in government. But there are a range of other policies that require high levels of compliance to be successful, beyond just taxes. And there are also a host of activities by which citizens interact with the state on key issues which require public trust.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a useful setting to explore this idea further. Across countries, vaccine rollouts have almost exclusively been administered by the state (as opposed to private companies). Trust in government has therefore been necessary to incentivise people to get vaccinated (and to thwart conspiracy theories that go against government-backed scientific advice).

Even before the pandemic, there was evidence of a strong association between public trust and inoculation willingness (Blair et al, 2017). Political trust during Covid-19 has also been associated with greater compliance with lockdown policies (Bargain and Aminjonov, 2020). Clearly, with a public health emergency like Covid-19, trust in government has been a vital asset for delivering effective interventions such as the vaccine rollout.  

Direct measures of compliance are possible on a policy-by-policy basis. But micro-data can provide some insights into cross-national trends. An index of voluntary compliance can be constructed by looking at respondents’ willingness to fight for their country, pay taxes and accept higher taxes to prevent environmental pollution (Besley, 2022). Conscription and taxes are two well-studied areas of compliance-based interactions with the state (Levi, 1997).

This work shows a strong positive correlation between the proportion of respondents who report high confidence in government and the voluntary compliance index (see Figure 1). Although not causal evidence, it highlights that trust and compliance are closely related.

Figure 1: Trust and compliance, by country

Source: Integrated Values Survey

Levels of political trust across the UK

Trust in government is relevant to every country’s political life. Recent political events have focused significant attention on this to the UK. In the first Conservative Party leadership debate to replace Boris Johnson, trust was the first issue highlighted, and was subsequently discussed at length.

Indeed, only 35% of the UK population trust the government, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This is below the OECD average of 41%.

While trust in government is crucial, there are several other branches of the state that citizens can have faith in. Local government is typically deemed more trustworthy than national government. This is partly because people have more interaction with local public services and have greater access to, say, local councillors compared with MPs in Westminster (Jennings, 1998).

The ONS findings show that 42% of people in the UK trust local government – a notably higher share than for national government. The data also indicate that trust is higher in the civil service, at 55%. Given civil servants are impartial bureaucrats, this should overcome public trust as being driven purely by partisan ties (for example, Conservative voters will be more likely to trust a Conservative government versus a Labour one). Political parties are actually the state institution with the lowest level of trust among the public, at 20%.

Figure 2: Trust in political institutions

Source: ONS

The ONS findings are a static snapshot of the distribution of public trust in 2022. Ideally, we also want to understand how trust has evolved over time. The available data from the OECD going back to 2010 show that trust in government dropped to around 35% in 2019, where it has remained since.

This stands below the 2010-2020 average of 42% (the pale blue line in Figure 3). Although speculative, it seems that Brexit, Boris Johnson’s premiership and Covid-19 are plausible drivers of this trend.

Figure 3: Trust in UK government (2010-2020)

Source: OECD

Why should governments build trust?

Declining public trust in government is worrying. The Covid-19 pandemic has tested public trust around the world. As the worst of the crisis subsides, (re)building trust will be pivotal not only to expand state capacity as a long-term project, but to also tackle future crises.

There are a range of issues which require government and their citizens to work together. The threat of climate change is a clear example. Governments must implement the right environmental policies to encourage a green transition.

Evidence suggests that such policies can help shift households’ habits towards greener patterns of consumption – although this logic is yet to be extended to firms and production tendencies (Nyborg et al, 2016; Mattauch et al, 2022). But for these theoretical ideas to work in practice, compliance will be necessary and cannot be taken for granted.

The OECD’s trust survey report shows that across OECD countries, half of individuals think that climate change should be prioritised by government, but only one-third are confident in policy success on this issue.

Across UK regions and the devolved nations there is also a positive correlation between confidence in government and citizens’ willingness to sacrifice income for the environment (see Figure 4). This relates to growing evidence on linking trust to climate policy preferences (Klenert et al, 2018; Dechezleprêtre et al, 2022). This also indicates that political trust matters for enhancing voluntary compliance to solve crises such as climate change, by increasing the range of policies available to policy-makers.

Figure 4: Political trust and environmental preferences, by UK nation/region

Source: Integrated Values Survey

How to build trust in government?

The drivers of mistrust in government are to some extent fairly obvious. Corruption is a case in point. If people see politicians using public office for private gain, they will be less likely to believe that government has their best interests at heart. Why would any household or firm pay taxes if they knew the money was being used to line politicians’ pockets?

Evidence that policy-makers are not following the rules, regulations or laws that they set also decreases public trust. ‘Partygate’ and the Dominic Cummings affair in the UK are evidence of this. Respect for the rule of law by those working in government is paramount for maintaining trust, ensuring there is sufficient compliance for delivering effective policy.

In terms of building trust in the state, proving policy competence is one method. Successful delivery of public goods and services, to increase the welfare of citizens, can be highly effective. The United States in the 1930s is a clear historical example. Recent evidence suggests that Americans who benefited from President Franklin  D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ – at the time, an unprecedented expansion of the state – were far more willing to voluntarily contribute to the war effort during the Second World War (Caprettini and Voth, 2022).

As with the case for tax morale, people are more likely to trust government, and voluntarily comply with policies, if government is perceived to work in citizens’ best interests.

Increasing the scope of public engagement with politics is also an important driver of public trust (Kumagai and Iorio, 2020). Legal scholars have emphasised the importance of ‘legitimacy’ – individuals tend to obey the law not from fear of sanctions, but because they see the law as a legitimate moderator of human behaviour (Levi et al, 2012).

A greater commitment to procedural fairness and amplifying people’s voices in the political process can help ensure policy decisions are seen as being legitimate, thereby strengthening trust.

Developing a strong social contract between government and the governed is no easy task. Healthy scepticism towards politicians is important so that government remains accountable to an active and vigilant citizenry.

Nevertheless, public trust is critical to expanding state capacity for the long run and to tackling future crises, such as climate change.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Tim Besley
  • Chris Dann
  • Imran Rasul
  • Paola Giuliano
Author: Chris Dann
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