Trust in government is hard won, but easily lost, especially during times of crisis. Trust in government dipped sharply during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and took a decade to recover. But trust can also be worn down over time by long-term trends, such as economic decline.
Trust matters. A country’s economic performance can be hampered by a lack of trust in government, because less trusting environments heighten a need for due diligence, increasing the costs of everyday transactions. Less trusting environments also undermine democracy and decision-making and reduce compliance with rules and regulations. Governments in democratic countries therefore have strong political and economic incentives to earn and maintain the trust of their citizens.
Yet trust in government is a fragile flower, and one that is wilting in a growing number of countries. While the first weeks of the pandemic saw a short-lived surge in government trust, it had dropped off sharply in most OECD countries by May 2021, according to a recent OECD study on Building Trust to Reinforce Democracy and is now only slightly higher than in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.
Some regions are losing faith
National statistics risk obscuring the complex picture that emerges at the subnational level, with large divides in levels of trust between regions in many countries. In South Korea, for example, there is a 35-percentage point difference in trust in government between the most trusting region (Chungcheong) and the least trusting region (Gyeongsang).
There are wide gaps in levels of trust between regions
Trust and the geography of political discontent
Trust disparities between OECD regions can be at partly explained by the differing levels of success that governments have in dealing with socio-economic challenges in different places. For example, regions with poor long-term economic outcomes often experience lower levels of government trust. This is also true in territories that are still relatively well-off but that have seen their economic fortunes drop over time, such as in parts of northern Italy.
Labour market shocks that lead to high levels of regional unemployment can also undermine trust. For example, between 2008 and 2014 in the EU, aftershocks from the Global Financial Crisis led to sharp rises in unemployment in certain territories. These same territories also saw declining levels of trust in national government.
The varying quality of regional government within countries may also explain trust disparities between OECD regions.
Research from Europe shows that trust in government among residents of rural areas has dropped sharply since 2008. This is driven by citizen dissatisfaction with local public services (notably education and healthcare) and the state of the local economy.
How to rebuild trust in the regions
This emerging geography of discontent in OECD countries has again underlined the need for national economic plans to take greater account of regional disparities.
Regional development policy offers several useful tools. Place-based regional development policies can help to address the root causes of economic dislocation across territories and re-energise regional or local growth. For instance, some industrial areas in France, northern Italy and Spain are facing economic stagnation due to a skills mismatch in their local economy, which can be fixed through targeted training programmes that are better matched with local labour market needs.
Embracing innovative ways of delivering local services can also help remote territories to deliver more effectively for their citizens. For example, digitising certain public services can help residents avoid long journeys, while (well-designed) inter-municipal co-operation can boost the quality of local public services like healthcare, which is complex and costly to deliver.
Another tool with the potential to improve trust in government is enhancing participatory opportunities for citizens to contribute to the local policy-making process. For example, consultations on local issues can help to restore faith in government by giving residents a greater say in decision-making.
In addition, improving multi-level governance frameworks can help national and subnational governments address local concerns by targeting them at the relevant scale, providing clarity on the responsibilities of different levels of government, and helping align public services, programmes and activities.
A final element that can help to strengthen government trust is a full-throated commitment by regional and local authorities to fighting misinformation. This can be achieved at all levels by providing citizens with truthful and accurate information. Ensuring access to comprehensive information regarding government decision-making and performance, including the impacts and outcomes of government programmes, can help to counter false and misleading information and build support for public policies.
While political trust itself may be an emotive concept, the factors that build or break it are ultimately grounded in the cold hard reality of government action or inaction. Strengthening the place-based dimension of national policies and empowering subnational governments to respond to the specific needs of their residents will be key to repairing broken trust.
Read more the OECD work on regions here.