Article
11 minute read 04 March 2021

Sustaining public trust in government

Strengthening trust in government institutions, systems, and processes

11 minute read 04 March 2021
Bruce Chew

Bruce Chew

United States

Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn

Ireland

Georgina Black

Georgina Black

Canada

Rajiv Gupta

Rajiv Gupta

United States

While the pandemic increased trust in government in many countries, others still have a long way to go in improving citizen trust—including tackling misinformation and communicating about data collection and usage.

In many parts of the world, trust in governments saw a massive surge in 2020, brought on by COVID-19.1 For the first time in decades, globally, citizens considered their governments to be the most trusted institution, as they looked for guidance during the pandemic. Such trust—and, increasingly, social trust or social capital—is crucial to managing challenging economic and public health issues.2

People’s trust in government tends to grow during times of crisis, as they rely on public institutions to address complex challenges, a phenomenon known as “rallying around the flag.”3 But, while vital, such trust is also fragile, and research suggests that large gains in trust are often quickly lost.4 By January 2021, the trust in government had fallen by 8 points globally, showcasing the challenges in sustaining high trust for longer period of time.5

Ultimately, trust in government is founded on citizens’ perceptions of its competence and intent.6

Competence refers to the ability to execute, to follow through on what you say you will do. Traditionally, perceptions of competence were driven by government actions and interactions with constituents such as delivering services or enforcing regulations.7 However, as those government actions have become increasingly digital, governments have struggled to convey the same sense of competence that often comes through in an in-person interaction.

Intent refers to the meaning behind someone’s actions: taking action from a place of genuine empathy and true care for the wants and needs of stakeholders and constituents. Perceptions of government intent have suffered in the transition to the digital age due to a rise in misinformation and disinformation.8 Also, Edelman research suggests that, over the years, rising inequality and economic disillusionment have had an outsized impact on public trust levels.9

As governments accelerate their digital transformation journey post–COVID-19, trust in government systems, data collection, and digital services will be critical. However, in many countries, years of political polarization, rising inequality, and a lack of credible information have fractured the credibility of public institutions. If governments fail to make “trust” a core component of the economic revival process, the current uptick in public trust in many countries could be short-lived.

Higher trust in government led to effective COVID-19 response

Trust has played an important role in effectively managing the COVID-19 pandemic, as countries with higher levels of social and government trust have typically seen slower virus spread and a lower mortality rate.10 As trust rises, so does confidence in government information generally, enabling a unified response and increased citizen cooperation.11

Since the start of the pandemic, Singapore has focused on clear and consistent information sharing. The government had an effective communication plan: The members of the COVID task force held daily press conferences, during which they explained the evolving COVID-19 situation and resulting government decisions. The government also leveraged nontraditional communication channels such as WhatsApp and Telegram to debunk misinformation and explain the rationale behind public health policies.12

In Taiwan, the country’s Central Epidemic Command Center held daily live-streamed press briefings, published and updated mask stock levels in real time, and created a government hotline to report discrepancies. Citizen “hacktivists” then built apps that allowed the public to interact with this information in a meaningful way. Through this participatory and transparent process, the government dramatically increased citizen trust in the government’s COVID-19 response.13

Less than a week after New Zealand recorded its first COVID-19 case, government officials had shut down the country in an attempt to eliminate the virus. The country closed its borders and instituted a “level four” lockdown, prohibiting people from interacting with anyone outside of their home except for essential services. This early and decisive action was possible only with high levels of citizen trust. By April 2020, 88% of Kiwis said they trusted their government’s handling of the pandemic.14

South Korea was one of the few countries that contained the pandemic without implementing a widescale economic shutdown. It accomplished this through an aggressive early response, which included ramped-up testing, an innovative contact-tracing approach, and robust isolation policies.15 Key to the country’s ability to avoid a shutdown was its unusually high level of social and governmental trust.16

Trust in government digital systems, services, and data initiatives

Commercial digital services such as online shopping, food delivery, and ride-sharing can now be accessed at the push of a button, thus creating expectations among citizens that government services should operate the same way.

This can create a catch-22 for governments. To retain citizens’ trust, they need to digitize services. But effectively digitizing services likely requires public trust. Moving government services to the digital domain requires not only that citizens enjoy the experience—they must also believe their sensitive data is being properly used and safeguarded. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many countries struggled to implement digital contact-tracing solutions due to citizen pushback.17

As with issues of mis/disinformation, governments are finding innovative ways to address this problem to build confidence in government—and its digital systems.

Data trusts and data-sharing infrastructure, such as Estonia’s X-tee platform, build public trust by facilitating the secure and authenticated exchange of data. Estonian public sector organizations are required to use the heavily regulated X-tee tool to access or share data. This platform improves cohesion across government agencies and bolsters citizen confidence.18 The UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport recently invested £700,000 in data trusts—legal structures that ensure proper stewardship of data. Through this structure, a data-collecting organization designates an independent trustee who is responsible for how the data is shared and used. The trustee has both the freedom to use the data to its full potential and the liability of protecting it from misuse.19

Other countries have increased trust by allowing citizens to control and revoke personal data access. Aadhaar, India’s biometric-based digital identification system requires fingerprints and iris images in addition to more routine data such as name, birthdate, sex, and address. But the system has added another layer of privacy, allowing citizens to use a randomly generated 16-digit number (virtual ID), which is mapped to the Aadhaar number, as a stand-in for the ID. Users can change their virtual ID number as easily as a computer password, and it cannot be tracked across databases.20 In Estonia, citizens and residents can monitor how the government has used their personal data. Data usage is recorded in time-stamped, tamper-proof digital logs, which users can monitor for suspicious activity.21

While higher trust in government played an important role in government response to the pandemic, governments globally have been struggling with a different kind of pandemic for the past few years—the rapidly rising problem of mis/disinformation. The growth in manipulated information and fake news has fractured social capital in some countries and increased distrust in government institutions, processes, and systems.22

Tackling information manipulation

Manipulation of the information environment is nebulous and difficult to pin down. It can be hard to see who is manipulating information and why. Propaganda can look very similar to the content shared by a poorly informed friend, and scammers and spies often use the same tactics. As such, misinformation is a problem that is difficult to define, let alone solve.

But this is the reality in which societies operate today. The “laundering” of misinformation into mainstream discussions via influencers, online forums, or other means can magnify the impact of mis- and disinformation by making them even harder to distinguish from the truth. As was seen in the US Capitol attack in January, the impact of such an environment on public trust can be immense and can manifest in varied ways, including disregarding scientific advice,23 believing conspiracy theories,24 and resorting to vandalism and violence.25 The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report calls it an “infodemic” and reports that trust in all information sources, including traditional media, social media, and search engines, is at an all-time low.26

Governments are addressing misinformation, disinformation, and fake news through various initiatives, including developing public awareness, improving transparency, collaborating with social media platforms, and improving sense-and-respond strategies.

In one example of a public awareness campaign, in the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coronavirus page debunks rumors and confirms accurate information surrounding the federal government’s COVID-19 response.27 Meanwhile Taiwan’s “humor over rumor” initiative fights fire with fire, using memes to combat coronavirus misinformation. Key to the initiative is a speedy response: By responding within two hours in most cases, the government is able to ensure more people see the truth than the conspiracy. A delayed response, they have found, would likely do little good.28 Australia similarly launched its “stop and consider” advertising campaign to combat election misinformation on social media during its 2019 election cycle. The campaign encouraged voters to carefully check the source of any election information they saw or heard.29

Collaboration between government, communities, and social media platforms has also played a role in reducing misinformation. In the United States, California expanded the reach of credible government information by enlisting celebrities to record short public service announcements encouraging citizens to “Stay Home. Save Lives,” and worked closely with social media platforms to distribute these messages.30

Indonesia’s Information Ministry partnered with tech giant Google and Mafindo, a citizen-led initiative focused on combating misinformation, to launch a comprehensive media literacy program that trains the public to spot internet hoaxes and disinformation.31 Meanwhile, a coalition of governments, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have partnered with social media platforms to fight conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations. The group aims to set common standards and accountability measures for combating misinformation across social media platforms.32

Some government agencies have focused on education and toolkits as a reliable—and repeatable—way to stem the flow of misinformation. The US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, for example, released a toolkit to help state and local governments navigate and respond to disinformation.33 Meanwhile, the United Kingdom updated its public school curriculum to include lessons on how to spot misinformation online.34 Finland and Australia have undertaken similar efforts, including digital literacy programs in their national curricula.35

Other governments have turned to transparency and agility, stopping misinformation in its tracks through short, regular, and accurate messaging, delivered directly to the people. In Canada, France, and New Zealand, leaders delivered daily or near-daily coronavirus updates to the public, leveraging a variety of platforms, including social media. Meanwhile, Finland has worked with social media influencers to provide clear and reliable information to younger audiences.36

Some countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have deployed task forces and special units to address disinformation. Canada’s Critical Election Incident Public Protocol created a five-member council to identify disinformation attempts and quickly notify the public. The task force is led by nonpolitical officials to prevent the perception of campaign interference.37

Governments are also increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology to fight mis/disinformation. In the United States, the Air Force and US Special Operations Command are developing an AI-powered platform that aims to combat disinformation as quickly as bots can disseminate it.38 The US Census Bureau used a software algorithm to comb billions of social media posts for misinformation. Using an AI-enabled “smart alerts” feature, the Bureau gets notified when a disinformation post has gained too much traction, thus allowing it to respond swiftly.39

In the United Kingdom, the government partnered with the University of Cambridge to create a new game called “Go Viral. ” The game simulates the spread of false information, challenging players to spread as much false information as possible. The five- to seven-minute game acts as a primer on the most common online manipulation techniques and gives players “the tools they need to discern fact from fiction.”40

Data signals

  • Globally, trust in government surged by 11 points to 65% since the pandemic hit in January 2020, making it the most trusted institution for the first time. Six in 11 markets surveyed saw double-digit increases in government trust, and it was the only institution trusted by a majority of the population, 62%.41
  • More than 290 factchecking projects in 83 countries were active as of June 2020 amid coronavirus and election-related falsehoods—up from 188 projects in about 60 countries a year prior.42
  • According to the Deloitte trust survey in the United States, the federal government was the least-trusted entity, in comparison with state and local government and commercial counterparts.43

Moving forward

  • What government does matters. Governments should focus on four trust signals—humanity, transparency, capability, and reliability—to build trust.
  • Expand civic participation. Digital tools and platforms can be used to enable citizens to climb the “ladder of participation.”
  • Active communication can play an important role in disseminating information quickly. Also, explore more nontraditional channels of communication, allowing information to reach people where they are, rather than expecting citizens to have to search for information.
  • Consider the use of emerging technologies to sense and respond to mis/disinformation.
  • Establish robust data governance processes on the collection, storage, and use of citizen’s data to increase their trust.

  1. Edelman, “Spring update: Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 ,” May 2020.View in Article
  2. Danielle Resnick “Trust in science and in government plays a crucial role in COVID-19 response ,” International Food Policy Research Institute ,” June 10, 2020; Stuti Rawat and Alfred Muluan Wu, “Why social capital is essential in the fight against COVID-19 ,” Asia & the Pacific Policy Society , June 23, 2020.View in Article
  3. OECD Webinar, “Measuring public trust after a pandemic and economic crises ,” June 22, 2020.View in Article
  4. Edelman, “Spring Update: Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 .”View in Article
  5. Edelman, “Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 ,” January 2021.View in Article
  6. Punit Renjen, The value of resilient leadership : Renewing our investment in trust , Deloitte Insights, October 8, 2020.View in Article
  7. OECD iLibrary, “Government at a Glance 2013 ,” accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  8. Edelman, “2020 Edelman Trust Barometer ,” January 19, 2020; “Spring update: Edelman Trust Barometer 2020.View in Article
  9. Edelman, “2020 Edelman Trust Barometer .”View in Article
  10. Thomas J. Bollyky et al., “Fighting a pandemic requires trust : Governments have to earn it ,” Foreign Affairs , October 23, 2020.View in Article
  11. Stephen Davenport et al., “We’re all in this together: Collective action and trust in the age of coronavirus ,” World bank blogs , April 20, 2020; Mark Lawrence Schrad, “The secret to coronavirus success is trust ,” Foreign Policy , April 15, 2020.View in Article
  12. Jeremy Lim, “How Singapore is taking on COVID-19 ,” Asian Scientist Magazine , April 3, 2020.View in Article
  13. Johnson Lai, “Hacking the pandemic: how Taiwan’s digital democracy holds COVID-19 at bay ,” The Conversation , September 11, 2020.View in Article
  14. Ian Bremmer, “The best global responses to COVID-19 pandemic ,” TIME , June 12, 2020.View in Article
  15. Aylin Woodward, “There's a demonstrated way to avoid lockdowns and still stop the coronavirus' spread. South Korea has been doing it for months ,” Business Insider , May 30, 2020.View in Article
  16. Ian Bremmer, “The best global responses to COVID-19 pandemic .”View in Article
  17. Jennifer Steinhauer and Abby Goodnough, “Contact tracing is failing in many states. Here’s why ,” The New York Times , July 31, 2020.View in Article
  18. OECD iLibrary, “Data governance in the public sector ,” accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  19. Open Data Institute, “Data Trusts summary report ,” accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  20. Identification for development, “Privacy by design: Current practices in Estonia, India, and Austria ,” World Bank Group , accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  21. Ibid.View in Article
  22. Pew Research Center, “The state of personal trust ,” July 22, 2019; Liz Hamel et al., “ KFF health tracking poll-September 2020: Top issues in 2020 election, The role of misinformation, and views on a potential coronavirus vaccine ,” KFF , September 10, 2020; Nicholas Florko, “Public trust in CDC, Fauci, and other top health officials is evaporating, poll finds ,” Stat News , September 10, 2020. Sara Fischer, “The raging trust crisis and its consequences ,” Axios , January 13, 2021.View in Article
  23. Alessandro Marchesani, “Why people refuse to wear masks, explained ,” The Cornell Daily Sun , September 14, 2020; UC Davis Health, “UC Davis experts: Science says wearing masks and social distancing slow COVID-19 ,” July 6, 2020.View in Article
  24. Jeffrey Sauger, “Coronavirus and conspiracies: how the far right is exploiting the pandemic ,” The Conversation , September 15, 2020.View in Article
  25. Jason Slotkin, “U.K. cellphone towers ablaze as conspiracy theories link 5G networks to COVID-19 ,” NPR , April 4, 2020.View in Article
  26. Edelman, “Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 .”View in Article
  27. FEMA, “Coronavirus rumor control ,” accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  28. Johnson Lai, “Hacking the pandemic: how Taiwan’s digital democracy holds COVID-19 at bay .”View in Article
  29. Australian Electoral Commission, “AEC encouraging voters to “stop and consider” this federal election ,” media release, April 15, 2019.View in Article
  30. CA.gov, “California’s leading digital and media platforms, businesses and celebrities partner with the state to amplify COVID-19 “Stay Home. Save Lives.” public awareness campaign ,” March 29, 2020.View in Article
  31. The Jakarta Post, “Stop Hoax Indonesia program to educate internet users in 17 cities ,” August 11, 2019; Treviliana Eka Putri et al., “ Banning social media is not the answer to Indonesia's fake news crisis ,” The Wire , June 26, 2019.View in Article
  32. Alex Hern, “Tech giants join with governments to fight COVID misinformation ,” The Guardian , November 20, 2020.View in Article
  33. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, “COVID 19 disinformation toolkit ,” accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  34. Harry Cockburn, “Schools to teach children about fake news and ‘confirmation bias’, government announces ,” Independent , July 15, 2019.View in Article
  35. Carita Kiili and Sirpa Eskelä-haapanen,“Digital literacies in the new Finnish national core curriculum ,” International Literacy Association , August 28, 2015; Media Awareness Network, “Digital literacy in Canada: From inclusion to transformation ,” July 7, 2010; ACARA, “Literacy learning progression and digital technologies ,” accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  36. Bureau of the Fiscal Service, “Data Transparency Program ,” accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  37. Rachel Aiello, “Feds unveil plan to tackle fake news, interference in 2019 election ,” CTV News , January 30, 2019.View in Article
  38. Patrick Tucker, “Can AI detect disinformation? A new special operations program may find out ,” Defense One , October 2, 2020; Brandi Vincent, “Just as the technology can be used to help deliberately spread falsities online, it can also be tapped to stop that spread ,” NextGov , November 9, 2020.
    View in Article
  39. Jory Heckman, “AI algorithm helps Census Bureau track down 2020 count misinformation ,” Federal News Network , April 1, 2020.View in Article
  40. Fred Lewsey, “Go Viral ,” University of Cambridge , accessed January 18, 2021.View in Article
  41. Edelman, “Spring Update: Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 .”View in Article
  42. Mark Stencel and Joel Luther, “Annual census finds nearly 300 fact-checking projects around the world ,” Reporter’s Lab , June 22, 2020.View in Article
  43. Deloitte Trust Survey, November–December 2020. View in Article

 

The authors would like to thank Mahesh Kelkar and Glynis Rodrigues from the Deloitte Center for Government Insights for driving the research and development of this trend.

The authors would also like to thank William Eggers for his insights and thoughtful feedback on the drafts.

Cover image by: Lucie Rice

Digital Customer Experience Services

Citizens’ demands are rapidly changing, and government customers want interactions to be on par with those they have in the private sector—mobile, innovative, and easy to use. As digital and technology trends continue to evolve, a forward-thinking customer experience strategy can improve citizen engagement and put your agency at the forefront of innovation.

RJ Krawiec

RJ Krawiec

Principal | Deloitte US

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