Thinking about trust

65% of the leaders we surveyed reported that they did not trust government advice during the pandemic. We do not know of course how this figure compares with levels of trust before the pandemic or how it might change in future. 

In this post we examine some of the evidence about trust in government and why it matters. 

Emerging evidence about trust

There is some evidence that the British population had low levels of trust in government even before the pandemic. In 2019, the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) showed that only 15% trusted the post Brexit government all the time, while a third (34%) said they almost never trusted them. There is now research which shows that levels of trust in governments worsened during the pandemic. 

The Edelman 2021 Trust Barometer suggests that falling trust in government is a global phenomenon, characterised by an “epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders”. Their survey suggests that only 45% of the UK population now trust the government; but business CEOs, journalists and religious leaders are also regarded with more suspicion than before. The report says that some 53% of the UK population now believe that the government is deliberately trying to mislead them. UK respondents are more likely to trust what is local.  

Transparency International, the global organisation responsible for monitoring corruption, claimed that lack of transparency in procurement and strong evidence of cronyism had dented public confidence at the very time it was most needed.

A meta-study ( Davies et al, 2021) of 18 survey organisations during 2020 states that there were low levels of trust immediately after the 2019 UK election – only 20% of all respondents trusted the government. But these levels rose immediately after the first lockdown in March 2020; the study suggests that this was the first and only time during 2020 that the percentage of respondents who trusted the UK government exceeded those who distrusted it. However, over 2020, levels declined to pre-Covid low levels. 

A survey of some 9000 UK respondents conducted in April 2000 (Enria et al, 2021), shows the same improvement in trust occurring at the start of the lockdown with some 52% of respondents agreeing that the government was making good decisions. However, the research showed significant differences according to location, levels of education and income. The researchers argued that generalised reporting could skew decision-making, and that it was important to continue more granular analysis and intervention. 

Another study to show the early rise of confidence was undertaken by  Parsons and Wiggins (May 2020). They suggest that age and race/ethnicity/gender are also important – in their survey older people had more trust in government than millennials, and young BAME participants have lower levels of trust than their white counterparts.  This UK study adds weight to the argument about the need for finer details in research, as well as the overall picture.

Does lack of trust in government matter?

Yes, trust matters, say researchers. An international study of 23 countries (Han et al, 2020) found that “higher trust in government was significantly associated with higher adoption of health and prosocial behaviours”. (See also Altiparmarkis et al 2021 for similar claims.) But, say researchers, be careful about the evidence you call on.  Devine et al (2020) reviewed early Covid19 research findings related to trust and noted definitional differences, debates and various measurements used. They caution against simple generalisations but also point to the ways in which the pandemic will put key assumptions about trust – namely that it is necessary for effective government – to the test. They conclude that despite these caveats early studies do shed light on a significant association of trust with effective government policy implementation. 

The OECD argues that trust is the basis for the legitimacy of government. Trust enhances well-being and social cohesion, they say, and reduces the need for coercion, thus also reducing inefficient transaction costs. Furthermore, the OECD suggests, trust is necessary for  “the fair and effective functioning of government institutions… may help government to implement long term structural reforms with long term benefits… could improve compliance with rules and regulations.. and could help to increase confidence in the economy” (2013 p. 22).

As Goldfinch, Gault and Talpin (2020) put it, reporting on early increased levels of trust in government during the pandemic in Australia and New Zealand, “trust and confidence are measures of effective government, but they also make government more effective.”

And trust might matter a lot in education in particular. A recent comparative review of education reforms across multiple countries (Ehren and Baxter, 2021) argues persuasively that trust between government and the profession is an essential foundation for success. 

We agree. Our view is that because education systems rely heavily on school leaders to carry out their policies, the government’s failure to address the combination of issues that have led to a lack of leader trust in England seems highly risky.

We haven’t yet located any data on trust which is disaggregated by employment groups so we have no way of knowing if school leaders are typical of other professionals, but our survey indicates that school leaders may now be less likely to trust the government than the population as a whole. We will continue to track relevant Covid 19 studies and report on this blog. We hope that our research, and that of our colleagues in education, will contribute specific information to the overall national picture.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Author: pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK

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