It’s difficult to tell a positive story about trust in government, globally speaking. On average across 19 countries around the world, only 22% think their government is trustworthy, while 45% rate it as untrustworthy. This is much more negative than many industry sectors – across an 11-sector average including businesses such as pharmaceuticals, food and drink, banking and energy, views are much more balanced, with about as many finding each trustworthy as untrustworthy (28% vs 29%). Governments are even less trusted than social media and oil & gas companies, the other two sectors at the bottom of the list.
But if we look at how things are changing, the evidence paints a slightly more positive picture – and suggests we don’t have to believe that trust in government is in permanent decline. In nearly all the countries we have surveyed, trust in government is in a better position than it was four years ago, with a rise in positive ratings of trustworthiness, and a fall in those who see it as untrustworthy. Much of this can probably be put down to a “rally-round the flag” effect that we saw during the pandemic: of the 10.5 points swing towards trustworthiness between 2019 and 2022, 7 points of this came between 2019 and 2021 (although, of course, that is a two-year period rather than one). However, at a time when many countries have been emerging from the pandemic, with lockdowns much less prevalent and the virus far lower down the public’s agenda then even at the beginning of the year, it is arguably just as important that that level of trust has been preserved rather than falling back down, especially as concerns about inflation and the economy have begun to replace those of health.
In fact, some countries have seen continued improvement this year – and as always, just looking at the global average hides a wide range of variation by different countries. Broadly, looking at the pattern of responses on the previous page, we can see a couple of groups. First are a grouping of more developed countries in western Europe (Italy, Germany, the UK, Spain and France), plus Australia, Canada and South Korea. These countries saw significant increases in trust in government over the period of the pandemic, since when trust has been more stable but maintained – with the exception of Germany and Britain, which both saw falls in trust in government this year.
The second group are primarily the large “emerging” nations of India, Brazil and Turkey, though also joined by Sweden. These saw negligible rises in trust between 2019 to 2021 (even a large fall in the case of Turkey) but have since seen much more significant improvements this year.
The improving headline perceptions were also accompanied by improvements in nearly all the underlying drivers of trust over the pandemic period, which again have been maintained this year. Ratings of government competence, motivations and values, leadership, responsibility, reliability and transparency are all better than they were in 2019. While they have not improved at quite the same rate as headline measures of trustworthiness, the fact that these underlying pillars of trust are improving too does give hope that the headline measures do have some more solid foundations to rest on. Nevertheless, it is still the case that in absolute terms, people are less positive about government performance
Finally, there is a group who sit somewhere in the middle, with small increases in trust over both periods, but adding up to an overall improvement over the four years as a whole. Countries such as the US, Poland and Belgium fall into this category.
In nearly all the countries we have surveyed, trust in government is in a better position than it was four years ago.
This all suggests that a range of common and individual country-level factors will help to explain these changes in trust. Germany has experienced a change from a long-standing, relatively popular leader, while Britain has seen even more political volatility this year, which might explain their falls after seemingly benefiting from a Covid boost like many other similar countries. But the underlying pattern points to the Covid pandemic increasing faith in governments around the world, which hasn’t been lost yet – and in some cases has even further improved.
Trust in Government vs excess Covid deaths
Looking at perceptions of government trustworthiness against real world changes such as the impact of Covid allow us to explore this in more detail.
Overall, levels of trust are negatively related to the number of Covid excess deaths in each country,2 as we might expect - there is higher trust in countries that suffered less from Covid (relatively speaking). Having said that, the link between change in trust over the pandemic period and relative proportions of excess deaths is much weaker. This suggests that the positive halo effect of citizens turning towards their government to protect them during Covid was something that was experienced in many places, even in some countries that did less well than others in minimising the virus’ impact.
But there is also an interesting pattern comparing the change in trust over the pandemic years (between 2019 and 2021) with the average rates of GDP growth over that period. This shows that the countries with the worst rates of GDP growth across 2020 and 2021 did not necessarily see lower rises in trust - suggesting perhaps that people were willing to accept a hit to their economies if it meant their governments were able to get control of the pandemic. However, this was at a time when Covid was the number one issue – the big question is whether citizens will forgive poor economic growth more easily at a time when worries about the cost of living are more of a priority for them, and perhaps can be blamed more easily on the actions of a government. Ipsos’ research4 has shown that citizens do blame many external factors (such as the global economy, the war in Ukraine, and Covid) for the rising cost of living, but that national governments are also held responsible.
The improving headline perceptions were also accompanied by improvements in nearly all the underlying drivers of trust over the pandemic period, which again have been maintained this year. Ratings of government competence, motivations and values, leadership, responsibility, reliability and transparency are all better than they were in 2019. While they have not improved at quite the same rate as headline measures of trustworthiness, the fact that these underlying pillars of trust are improving too does give hope that the headline measures do have some more solid foundations to rest on.
Nevertheless, it is still the case that in absolute terms, people are less positive about government performance
on these drivers than they are for many other industry sectors. And not everything is moving in the right direction – around half of people still believe that their government would take advantage of them if it could, exactly the same as before the pandemic. Nor is trust in politicians or ministers – the personal embodiment of government – improving at the same rate as overall trust in government itself. They remain at the bottom of the league table of trusted professions worldwide.
So there is still much to improve when it comes to global trust in government. But the story of the pandemic and post_pandemic years is that improving trust is possible and can be sustained – the question is whether it takes a crisis to do so. Tales of trust getting forever worse everywhere no matter what are neither reflected in the data nor inevitable – while a level of scepticism is always likely to exist, by focusing on delivering the outcomes that citizens want, and demonstrating that government has their interests and values at heart, faith in government can be slowly rebuilt. If this though can survive a global economic slowdown in 2023, then trust really will have been earned.