In Beijing, being a cyclist is dangerous. Bikers often refuse to yield to one another, cutting people off at will – because they don’t trust others to give them their turn.
Bike-sharing is similarly fraught. The concept relies on trust – that riders will pay for their ride and return the bike somewhere sensible when they’re done. But the streets of major Chinese cities are littered with discarded, defaced and dismantled bikes, leaving companies and city officials at a loss for how to keep the model alive.
These are symptoms of a problem that is difficult to diagnose: a lack of confidence in government. (There is more discussion of this question in our feed on government innovation.)
Among OECD countries, the percentage of citizens who trust government varies widely: from 80% in Switzerland to 13% in Greece. Overall, trust has been steadily declining for 10 years, now sitting at an average of 43%.
Many have speculated that dwindling trust in government is to blame for recent seismic shifts in politics – namely, the populism that has swept the US, UK and much of Eastern Europe. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, low-income and middle class voters found themselves saddled with debt and dealing with lost jobs, homes, and savings. They started to see government as dishonest, corrupt and there to serve the few, not the many.
But losing confidence in government isn’t just about how people vote or view politicians – it also affects the way they interact with each other.
Data source: OECD
What happens when citizens don’t trust their government?
Losing faith in political institutions is tantamount to losing social capital: the idea that citizens more or less agree on the rules of a society and why they matter.
If people think their elected officials aren’t playing by those same rules, they come up with ways to game the system. When this every-man-for-himself attitude prevails, the rules of society start to erode. And, as studies show, when citizens view their government as corrupt, they are more likely to cut corners, too.
In China, where state-administered opinion polls indicate high trust in government but analysts suggest otherwise, research shows a decline in social capital, even in the midst of large-scale economic growth. This is attributed to a number of factors, chief among them the repression of free speech and continued prevalence of poverty on the periphery of large cities. “Objective records are in striking contrast with subjective standards,” reads one report, citing substantial drops in average life satisfaction throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s.
Some have said that to live in China is to live in a society of distrust – to the point where few would stop to help an elderly person who has fallen in the street, for fear of being blamed for pushing them. From poor manners to a disregard for others’ physical safety, it’s easy to see the problem: when people do not trust others to uphold society’s norms, they don’t do so themselves.
How trusted institutions are torn down
China is hardly the only country where the erosion of trust is changing civic life.
A recent study found a 5% drop in measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations among American children – which, by one conservative estimate, is expected to cost the public sector $2.1 million in the coming years. In several Los Angeles schools, so many parents are refusing to vaccinate their kids that immunisation rates are on par with South Sudan’s.
In some areas, faith in the education system is also on the decline: a growing number of New York state parents are taking kids out of year-end exams in favour of a more “DIY” approach to schooling.
Figuring out whom to trust in the US is harder than ever: for the first time in recent history, the divide among Americans isn’t as simple as Democrat versus Republican – it’s a chasm between what people believe to be true. When the president calls into question the morality and authority of the media – whose very job it is to serve as a government watchdog – it can be difficult for citizens to know who to trust or what to believe.
As a result, trust in government in the US is at a historic low: 20% of citizens say they trust the government to do what’s right always or most of the time. (OECD figures in the above chart cite 30%, but the Pew Research’s Center’s data is more recent.) One survey found that Congress is less popular than head lice, colonoscopies – and the band Nickelback.
How can governments gain citizens’ trust?
When people have confidence in their elected officials, they are more likely to invest in the economy, comply with laws and make sacrifices – like paying higher taxes – for the greater good. It also boosts social capital, and with it, compliance with social norms like vaccinating kids and respecting public property.
It’s difficult to measure exactly how governments gain citizens’ trust – but here are some of the most innovative ways they are doing it.
Make data readily available
One of the most promising means of regaining trust is making data – all data, on everything from pothole repairs to emergency response times – open and accessible to the public.
In Boston, citizens can use an app to report city fixtures – like potholes, broken streetlights or graffiti – in need of repair. The city uses the data to dictate maintenance, and once fixed, the person responsible takes a photo and sends it to the citizen who reported the fault. It gives citizens the sense that real people are fixing these problems – and, the city found, when citizens receive photos of the repair they asked for, they are more likely to report future issues.
Barcelona, meanwhile, is giving citizens more control over how it uses their data. In a new, open-source platform, it will invite users to “donate” data, rather than harvest it without their knowledge. The city will use the information to provide better services, such as a map of vacant apartments designed to improve affordable housing in the overcrowded city.
Involve citizens in policy
The Brexit referendum was supposed to put the power in the hands of the people – instead, it ignited anger and division. An alternative to making big decisions via referendum is using a “citizen’s jury”, which enlists a random selection of civilians to consult on a big policy decision. The citizens’ jury dissects issues in the same way a jury in a courtroom does: by looking at verified facts and figures and hearing evidence from a range of experts and witnesses.
Canada and Australia have run deliberative panels on big policy decisions, such as whether to open a nuclear waste factory and how to expand transportation. Research shows that people who participate in policymaking are more likely to understand the complexities faced by government.
Bring government services online
The ability to pay taxes, order a passport or register a business online does more than cut out bureaucracy and save time – digitising services can have a significant cultural impact on citizens.
Estonia’s “X-Road” initiative accomplishes all of the above. The data exchange network has helped digitise 99% of government services, saving 2.8 million hours of labour every year. As a result, citizens can pay their taxes in five minutes and incorporate a new business in under 20. They can also vote online, drive without a license and ride public transport without a pass.
Governments around the world – from Singapore to the small island of Jersey – are using chatbots to help citizens’ interactions with government run more smoothly. Rather than call a public helpline or waste time trudging through clunky government websites, they help people find the information they want quickly and easily, and at any time of day.
Be transparent about policymaking
Governments today should do more than provide raw data on public services – they must present information in simple, easily digestible ways to show citizens what their tax dollars are funding.
The European Parliament has created a “train schedule” for its priorities, which shows when each proposal will be deliberated. And in the Basque Country, a data portal publishes parliament’s legislative calendar, so the region’s 2.1 million inhabitants can comment on which laws are being discussed.
The government of California, meanwhile, provides searchable digital videos and transcripts of every legislative hearing. It also lists every elected official’s financial ties to lobbyists and big corporations.
(Picture credit: Unsplash/Yuanbin Du)