Regions of discontent: how to repair territorial divides in government trust

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. 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. This is 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

Note: Share of respondents that trust the national government in regions with highest and lowest level of trust by country, 2021
Source: OECD Trust Survey (http://oe.cd/trust)

Trust and the geography of political discontent

Trust disparities between OECD regions can be 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 2008-14 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. This 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. 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 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 issues. They should target them at the relevant scale, providing clarity on responsibilities at different levels, and aligning programmes and activities.

A full-throated commitment by regional and local authorities to fighting misinformation is essential. This can be achieved at all levels by providing citizens with truthful and accurate information about government activities. Ensuring access to comprehensive information regarding government decision-making and performance. This should include the impacts and outcomes of government programmes that 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.

Head of Divison - Regional Development and Multi-level Governance at OECD at | Website | + posts

Dorothée Allain-Dupré

is Head of the Regional Development and Multi-level Governance Division within the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities of the OECD. She oversees a team of 35 experts providing governments with evidence, data, analysis, policy advice and recommendations to strengthen the competitiveness and resilience of regions, mitigate regional disparities, and improve multi-level governance and subnational finance. She oversees OECD programmes on regional development, rural development and regional attractiveness, multi-level governance, decentralisation, and subnational finance and investment, among other areas. In her position, Dorothée is driving the work of the OECD’s Regional Development Policy Committee.

A French national, Ms Allain-Dupré holds a master’s degree in Public Policy from École Doctorale Sciences-Po (France), a master’s degree in European Studies from the University of Sussex (UK), and a bachelor’s degree in Public Affairs from Institut d'Etudes Politiques, Sciences-Po (France).

Head of Unit, Governance and Strategic Planning at http://www.oecd.org/regional | Website | + posts

Maria-Varinia Michalun specialises in multi-level governance of regional development. She contributes to policy dialogue on national, regional and local governance, providing recommendations for building integrated governance practices, implementing decentralisation reform, establishing territorial governance structures, improving public service delivery, and enhancing citizen well-being. Varinia leads the team dedicated to providing policy recommendations on governance and strategic planning for regional development in the OECD’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. She has worked with national and subnational governments in a variety of countries, including Argentina, Chile, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Panama, Poland, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

Varinia holds a Master degree in Public Affairs from Sciences-Po Paris, with a concentration in welfare systems complemented by extensive work in regional economic development. She received her undergraduate degree in international economics from Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service, in Washington, DC.

Policy analyst at http://www.oecd.org/regional | Website | + posts

Geoff Upton is a Policy Analyst in the Regional Development and Multi-level Governance Division of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE). He originally joined the OECD in 2019 as a Policy Analyst working on the Eurasia region, with a specific focus on regional development and decentralisation, before moving to join CFE in 2022. A New Zealand/British national, Geoff holds a master’s degree in Russian & East European Studies from Oxford University, and a bachelor’s degree in French and Russian from Durham University.