What drives trust in public institutions? Results and learnings from the first OECD Trust Survey
By Monica Brezzi (Monica.BREZZI@oecd.org) & Sina Smid (Sina.SMID@oecd.org), Public Governance Directorate (OECD)
Why should we care about Trust?
Trust plays a key role in the effectiveness of public policies and the COVID-19 crisis has heightened the importance of trust as critical input for the functioning of democratic institutions. At the same time, trust between citizens and their government has long been considered an indicator of performance of public institutions and an outcome of public governance. A long-standing literature looks at the performance and reputation of institutions as important and independent factors contributing to trust (Bouckaert, 2012; Van de Walle and Migchelbrink, 2020).
The OECD has worked for more than 10 years on understanding people’s trust in public institutions and developing comparative evidence on its main drivers that are amenable to policy change, such as government’s responsiveness, reliability, integrity, fairness and openness (OECD, 2017).
The inaugural OECD Survey on Trust in Public Institutions (Trust Survey) is a big step forward in the cross-country comparison of the quality of public governance, improving our understanding of how trust works. This nationally representative survey comprised interviews with more than 50,000 respondents in 22 OECD countries in late 2021 to understand what drives public trust in democratic governments.
The Trust Survey advances our work on public trust in three ways:
- First, the survey was conducted amidst ongoing concerns regarding the ability of democratic governments to address global challenges at a time of political disengagement, polarisation and rising misinformation. The revised OECD framework on drivers of trust in public institutions and the survey questionnaire reflect these considerations, by asking questions on political voice, expectations on participation and representation, as well attitudes towards government’s action on global challenges. These questions add to the core questionnaire, which assesses perceptions of competence and principles of governmental institutions, such as reliability, responsiveness, openness, integrity and fairness (Brezzi et al., 2021). Notwithstanding differences among countries due to institutional, economic, cultural and contextual factors, the OECD Trust Survey results provide a common agenda for OECD governments to identify effective responses to strengthen democratic governance models to tackle major economic and social challenges (OECD, 2022).
- Second, by providing a set of internationally comparable indicators, the Trust Survey increases the availability of public governance statistics on the outcomes of government actions as perceived by citizens, an area where robust measures often lag years behind reality. Future survey waves will continue to gauge citizen perceptions using robust and tested indicators that have come a long way since first laid out in the Guidelines on Drivers of Trust in Institutions (OECD, 2017).
- Finally, the implementation of the Trust Survey shows that nationally representative population surveys can be a useful tool to collect timely and statistically robust outcome indicators of public governance across countries. The expertise offered by National Statistical Offices (NSOs), which have administrated the survey in coordination with the OECD, will help to continuously strengthen the survey design and improve the validity of the indicators.
Governments are doing well on reliability, but falling short of citizens’ expectations on responsiveness, participation and representation
The OECD Trust Survey finds that, on average across countries, there is an even split between the share of people who have high trust in the national government and those who do not – about four in ten (41.4%) trust, and four in ten do not trust (41.1%). In 2021, trust was under strain but remained slightly higher on average than in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 (Figure 1).
Through a range of cross-country public governance indicators, we find that most OECD governments are performing satisfactorily in public perceptions of government reliability, service provision, and data openness. For example, almost half of respondents say that their governments would be prepared for future pandemics (49%), while only one-third says they would not. A majority are satisfied with the healthcare, education, and administrative services. Similarly, on average across OECD countries people trust their government in using their personal data legitimately and are satisfied with access to information about administrative procedures. Governments should continue to improve the reliability of policies and services, as further analysis finds it is one of the determinants that has a large influence on trust in the national government and in the civil service (OECD, 2022).
Governments are faring considerably less well in perceptions of democratic governance, such as responsiveness, opportunity for participation, and integrity. For example, on average across OECD countries, 50% of people think that the governments should prioritise actions related to climate change, while only about a third (36%) are confident that governments will succeed in reducing their country’s greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 2). This gap may reveal a discrepancy between attitudes toward climate policies and lack of confidence in their effectiveness. Many other variables in the survey confirm a disconnection between people’s expectations and perception of government responsiveness (OECD, 2022).
Measures of citizens’ participation also point to widespread skepticism. Fewer than one-third of respondents believe that the government would adopt opinions expressed in a public consultation (Figure 3). On overtly political processes, half of people on average across OECD countries think they do not have a voice on the actions of their government. Perceptions of public integrity and inclusion of vulnerable groups are generally not satisfactory. All these factors matter for trust and indicate that governments need to invest not only to enhance policy and service delivery, but also to strengthen democratic values on policy design and delivery.
The Trust Survey provides a full set of internationally comparable statistics on public governance outcomes
Traditionally, public governance indicators are assessed through expert judgments, while the OECD Trust Survey provides a full range of indicators based on population survey data, allowing us to relate government’s inputs and processes with their impact on citizens and firms.
These governance statistics are comparable across twenty-two OECD countries and future survey waves will track changes over time. Several steps were implemented in the survey questionnaire to minimise cross-country differences in understanding and answering the survey questions, thus enhancing the robustness of cross-country benchmarking. These included randomisation of questions and answers; the use of situational questions; and eleven-point numerical response scales with response options ‘’don’t know’’ and ”prefer not to say” in background questions.
The survey benefitted from a consultative process with policy makers, NSOs and researchers, which took place in 2020-2021 (Brezzi et al., 2021). Some experimental measures of trust in public institutions were included in the OECD Guidelines (OECD, 2017) and tested in few countries via the OECD Trust Lab (Murtin et al., 2018). Much of the current Trust Survey questionnaire was first developed for country studies in Korea (OECD/KDI, 2018), Finland (OECD, 2022) and Norway (OECD, 2022), and then thoroughly reviewed in 2021 in collaboration with an Advisory Group comprising representatives from NSOs and public administrations from participating countries.1
Some initial tests confirm the robustness of the Trust Survey results (Nguyen et al., 2022). In addition, the Australian Bureau of Statistics piloted a cognitive test with the OECD questionnaire before its full implementation and the Columbian NSO (DANE) included some OECD questions in a national survey to compare results. However, there is scope to continue assessing and improving the statistical quality in collaboration with NSOs and academia using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods.
Don’t ask (only) the experts: population surveys can be useful tools to understand public governance outcomes
The Trust Survey was implemented with a non-probability sample (with ex-ante nationally representative quotas from administrative or official statistics) and carried out via web-based interviews in most surveyed countries.2 Non-probability samples and online data collection have several advantages in surveying timely perceptions and attitudes. They are less costly, easier and faster to implement in multiple countries at the same time, and more suitable than face-to-face interviews for sensitive topics. At the same time, non-probability samples have limitations. The reliability of results and the representativeness of the sample, especially for population groups that are difficult to reach, is often limited. The implementation of quotas on gender, age, region and education and the use of survey weights helped to reduce these limitations. For example, we found that the responses on trust levels in the Trust Survey correlate with responses from similar questions included in other international surveys, including the European Social Survey and the Gallup World Poll, both of which use probability samples (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Comparison of trust in government levels in European Social Survey, Gallup World Poll and OECD Trust Survey
In the future, online population surveys could become a regular tool to collect timely data on public governance perceptions, as face-to-face and phone surveys become increasingly expensive and difficult to carry out. The collaboration with NSOs, by for example adding selected Trust Survey questions to existing national probabilistic citizen surveys, will help to continue improving the reliability and quality of non-probability surveys.
1 In Finland, Ireland, Mexico and the United Kingdom, the National Statistical Office implemented the 2021 OECD Trust Survey.
2 The survey was web-based and postal in Finland and the United Kingdom, in Norway web-based and postal and in Mexico face-to-face.
- Bouckaert, G. (2012), “Trust and public administration”, Administration, Vol. 60/1, pp. 91-115. 
- Brezzi, M. et al. (2021), “An updated OECD framework on drivers of trust in public institutions to meet current and future challenges”, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 48, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/b6c5478c-en 
- Murtin, F. et al. (2018), “Trust and its determinants: Evidence from the Trustlab experiment”, OECD Statistics Working Papers, No. 2018/2, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/869ef2ec-en 
- Nguyen, D. et al. (2022), “Survey design and technical documentation supporting the 2021 OECD Survey on Drivers of Trust in Government Institutions”, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 53, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/6f6093c5-en 
- OECD (2022), Building Trust to Reinforce Democracy: Main Findings from the 2021 OECD Survey on Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions, Building Trust in Public Institutions, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/b407f99c-en 
- OECD (2022), Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions in Norway, Building Trust in Public Institutions, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/81b01318-en 
- OECD (2021), Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions in Finland, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/52600c9e-en 
- OECD (2017), OECD Guidelines on Measuring Trust, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264278219-en 
- OECD (2017), Trust and Public Policy: How Better Governance Can Help Rebuild Public Trust, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264268920-en 
- OECD/KDI (2018), Understanding the Drivers of Trust in Government Institutions in Korea, Building Trust in Public Institutions, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264308992-en 
- Van de Walle, S. and K. Migchelbrink (2020), “Institutional quality, corruption, and impartiality: the role of process and outcome for citizen trust in public administration in 173 European regions”, Journal of Economic Policy Reform, Vol. 25/1, pp. 9-27, https://doi.org/10.1080/17487870.2020.1719103