Tracking Trust in Government: Can COVID-19 restore a long-term decline?

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  • Published Date: 29 April 2021

By Edward Yencken and Lachlan McKenzie

In 2020, ANZSOG partnered with the Centre for Public Impact in 2020 to produce Reimagining Government – a series of webinars which brought together senior practitioners, academics, and leading thinkers from across the globe to discuss how governments should change as a response to COVID-19, and which was used by the OECD as part of its ‘Government After Shock’ event in November 2020.

Reimagining Government has  returned for 2021, and this article was written as a resource for the 2nd webinar – ‘Learning to Listen again’ – held on 13 May and explores the rise in trust in governments as a result of the pandemic and its implications for government.

Public sector leaders are keenly aware of the hard reality of high community expectations, the often-grave responsibility to deliver public goods, and the high cost of failure. This is a key feature of our Westminster system and public service in a liberal democracy.

Meeting community expectations is often the greatest challenge and the most rewarding part of the work of public sector leaders. But what happens when the communities we serve are dissatisfied with how the system is working, and their trust in democracy is in on the decline? And what implication does this have for the work of public sector leaders?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, trust in government in Australia and New Zealand was in a consistent long-term decline, independent of short-term political developments. This trend continued in spite of the willingness of public services to engage with the issue through innovative policy responses such as place based service delivery and greater use of digital technologies.

  • The 2019 Thodey Review noted that public trust in the benefits of ‘globalisation, openness and traditional institutions, including the APS, [was] at concerning, low levels’.
  • The 2019 Australian Election Study found that in 2019 just 59% of Australians were satisfied with the way democracy was working, down 27% from the high point in 2007.
  • Griffith University’s Australian Constitutional Values Survey in 2018 showed that trust was declining in all levels of government, with only 46% trusting federal or state governments, and 51% trusting local governments.

COVID 19: Saviour or false dawn for facilitating greater trust in government?

In part because of these efforts, it is remarkable that in such a short timeframe Australia has experienced a rapid transformation in perceptions of trust in government in 2020.

In the first instance this can be directly attributed to Australia’s successful management of the initial ‘first wave’ of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first wave saw nation-wide lockdowns and unparalleled government intervention at both a federal and state level.

It was this success that, in large part, can be directly linked to 80% of Australians surveyed saying they trusted government. Recent research by ANZSOG Professor Shaun Goldfinch, Robin Gauld and Ross Taplin has found that 72% surveyed Australians agree the ‘government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic had increased their trust in government’. This increase in trust seems to be largely bipartisan, unlike the situation in the United States of America.

Other research conducted in 2020 backs the idea of an increase in trust in government, in the short-term at least. Research from The Australia Institute found high levels of support for government and that governments were the most trusted source of information about the pandemic. Similarly, the Rapid Research Information Forum, chaired by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO, found that Australians’ trust in federal and state and territory governments to collect and use their personal data increased during the pandemic.

It has been over a year since the start of the pandemic, so we now have an opportunity to consider whether increased levels of trust in government are a durable phenomenon. Goldfinch, Taplin and Gauld have already cautioned that the increase in trust might only be temporary. This can in part be associated with aspects of the decisive response taken at the start of the pandemic that may not be able to be maintained.

In addition, a renewed recognition of challenges prior to the pandemic will likely become necessary. This is on top of the challenges the public sector faces in changing its own working practices and dealing with its new responsibilities as the world begins to rebuild. It is important that we learn from the lessons of responding but in a way that is sustainable to deal with bigger challenges.

One lesson public sector leaders should keep front-of-mind when thinking about the pandemic and the public’s increased trust in government is that our communities want decisive responses from government when the welfare and wellbeing of the citizenry is at stake. This may then precipitate a longer term increase of demand and expectations on the public sector.

But to deliver on these expectations, our public services need the resourcing, capability, and creativity to look ahead, think broadly and act promptly. This responsibility falls on to the politicians who have worked with, and relied on, the public service to implement COVID-19 responses.

If we can take this lesson away from the pandemic response, then maybe the upward trend in trust in government can be sustained.