Trust Is The Foundation Of Effective Government

Democratic government is at its very core a demonstration of trust — trust between the people, their elected representatives, and the institutions created to serve them. It is trust that underpins the success, or failure, of public policies, all of which rely on the responses of people to the actions of their government.

On May 21, Australians demonstrated this fundamental truth when over 80% of the adult population cast their vote in the most recent federal election. Within 24 hours of claiming victory, Australia’s 31st prime minister announced that he would implement an integrity commission to improve trust in government, as well as a referendum to recognise an indigenous voice in parliament.

Why were these immediate moves so critical? The extraordinary political and social instability, environmental pressures, health crises, and other systemic risks over the last two years alone, along with ongoing scandals and an influx of misinformation, have destabilised the public’s trust in many organisations, including government. In response, citizens question, judge outcomes, and become active when they want to see change.

A New Pattern Of Trust Emerges As A Mission Imperative

Despite all these challenges, society isn’t suffering from a lack of trust; rather, individuals are constantly adjusting their level of trust. For example, in 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that three in five (61%) of Australians felt that most people can be trusted.

The reality is, as people lose trust in certain individuals, organisations, brands, or institutions, they redirect that trust to other entities. Case in point? The success of the “teal” independents, candidates running on a common platform of greater integrity, action on climate change, and improved social equity, six of whom were elected in seats previously considered to be wins for either one, or the other, of Australia’s major parties.

And yet existing research typically analyses trust as a relationship between two parties (or a set of parties) at a given time: a political party and voters or a community and business, for example. But interactions are more fluid than this, and organisations deal with customers, employees, stakeholders, and partners simultaneously.

Trusted organisations are those that build unbreakable bonds with the people they serve; attract the best, most dedicated talent; and create resilient ecosystems with partners and leverage emerging technologies. Governments worldwide are recognising this fact and beginning to turn their attention to the role that trust plays in mission success.

On the global stage, US President Biden signed two executive orders within his first 12 months of office directly targeting the restoration of trust through evidence-based decision-making and transformed customer experience. Locally, the Minister for Customer Service and Digital Government Victor Dominello spoke about the need to measure “the trustworthiness of government to assess the likelihood of quality service delivery” in New South Wales.

Trust Isn’t Abstract — You Can Build And Strengthen It

Trust is an attitude about uncertainty. It builds on confidence and expectation. We don’t know with absolute certainty whether an event or a behaviour is going to happen, but trust is the confidence that something we expect is very likely to happen and that it will happen. In a societal context, a person expects its government to keep them safe; the government proves itself trustworthy by consistently meeting those expectations. While people are biologically predisposed to trust, organisations can’t use a generic approach for their trust initiatives.

To address this challenge, Forrester crafted a specific trust definition built on the relationship between confidence and expectations, which are at the core of trust. This trust imperative research also identified and defined a set of seven levers that influence how individuals trust. Any organisation can pull and push on each lever to adjust trust to a desired level or identified need.

In October 2021, Forrester ran a pilot study of 500 Australian adults to measure how well people’s trust in government drives critical behaviours such as compliance, advocacy, and engagement.
The resulting model extends Forrester’s seven levers of trust with specific drivers relating to an individual’s relationship with the level of government that affects them the most. We ranked the drivers by the correlative impact they have on overall trust in government in terms of mission-critical behaviours to identify the most important drivers.

Based on the levers and drivers, along with their relationship to behaviours, we generated a trust score to understand the relative degree of trust across government institutions and social demographics. We have since expanded the study to 11 countries.

Identifying The Strategies To Earn And Retain Trust

We found that Australians have moderate trust in the institution of government, with more people trusting state and local governments than the federal government. On average, only 28% of Australians trust the federal government. That is lower than the average of 35% who trust state governments and 31% who trust their local leaders.

Across all the states of Australia, residents of New South Wales (NSW) have the highest trust in government, with 35% of NSW respondents saying they trust the federal government, compared to just 14% in Queensland. In addition, people with more education and higher incomes are more likely to trust the government than those with less education and lower incomes.

To benefit from the trust opportunity, governments must design and execute sound trust strategies. But how can the government determine how much trust it needs and how it can influence people’s trust? Leaders must focus on levers and drivers of trust to ensure that trust becomes an actionable strategy rather than an inspirational goal. For Australian agencies and institutions, this means understanding that:

  • Accountability is the most important lever of trust. The best way for government institutions to win people’s trust is to fulfill their promises. Yet only 28% of people surveyed agreed that the government does everything it can to fulfill its promises.
  • Australian governments must invest in employee upskilling and talent development. Public servants who demonstrate competence and expertise are the next most important driver of trust. Just 36% of respondents believe that public servants are professional and capable at what they do.
  • Trust requires transparency that goes beyond frequent crisis communication. According to our existing customer experience research, people are more likely to trust government agencies that communicate clearly. Just 30% of Australians surveyed, however, agreed that the government communicates with residents clearly and transparently.
  • Australian governments must do more to make people feel safe. In 2021, Australian governments focused on overcoming the COVID-19 crisis, and that worked: “The government keeps me safe” is the best-performing trust driver, with 37% of respondents agreeing with the statement.

Embrace The Trust Imperative

You cannot rely on opinion polls on the electoral fortunes of political parties, candidates, or leaders to drive mission-critical behaviours such as compliance, advocacy, and engagement. And while the ability of elected officials to keep the promises they make is key to trust, it is only one of seven levers needed to build that trust.

Now that you understand the definition of trust and its levers, you can use measurements, surveys, and other tools to determine how much trust your government institutions need and how to use a dedicated strategy to influence people’s trust in you.

Remember, trust is fragile. Each engagement with the people in your jurisdiction is an opportunity to build, reinforce, or destroy trust in government.

Read The Government Trust Imperative In Australia, Q2 2022 to learn how your institution can win the trust of your customers, employees, stakeholders, and ecosystem partners, or schedule an inquiry with myself or Riccardo Pasto to learn more.