1. Trust and Public Governance in New Zealand

Governments exist to provide public goods and services that are important to peoples’ well-being, which would not be provided without collective action. This includes the provision of public services such as public education, but also providing the rules that underpin functioning markets, reduce social and economic inequalities to levels that are consistent with civil society expectations, and ensure equality of opportunity and a fair treatment. Ultimately, achieving the outcomes that people expect, requires good public governance and well-functioning public institutions. Trust is a key foundation of well-functioning democracies; it facilitates the implementation of policies and contributes to successfully navigating social and economic crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to addressing long term challenges ahead such as global warming.

Public governance in New Zealand is functioning well. The New Zealand government’s handling of the pandemic has been praised internationally as a successful example of a system that minimised unintended social and economic consequences. Some of the elements that contributed to this success were high reliance on expertise, strengthened emphasis on collective shared goals and a politically neutral, effective, and trusted public service that worked in a coordinated manner. According to the Kiwis Count survey, conducted by the Public Service Commission, trust in the public service brand reached record levels of about 70% in December 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic (Public Service Commission, 2022[1]).

Still, domestically, New Zealand faces challenges ahead. As evidenced by the Wellington protests, even when policies are effective, mis- and disinformation can shake the foundations of the democratic system and undermine the legitimacy of institutions. In addition, perceptions on the deterioration of some services, deepening inequalities and a gloomy economic outlook threaten to weaken social cohesion. New Zealand also experiences an increased likelihood of environmental disasters from climate change, owing to the country’s natural exposure and high reliance on natural resources. Finally, New Zealand also strives to address its colonial legacy. Preserving and strengthening institutional trust will be of essence to navigate through these challenges while preserving New Zealand’s relative place as a lead OECD country in several public governance areas.

At the forefront of this transformation is the public service. The 2020 public service act lay down the framework for the work of the public service in years to come. It sets the foundations for a public service that is more adaptive, agile and collaborative that can more effectively meet the needs of New Zealanders. Through an emphasis on the spirit of service, the act places the trust relationship between people and institutions at the heart and as a key outcome of service provision.

Institutional trust is also recognised as a key element for achieving well-being as one of the broad objectives of the New Zealand administration. Some of the channels through which public institutions are expected to contribute to enhancing people’s well-being are reflected in the public service standards of integrity and code of conduct (Public Service Commission, 2007[2]), which directs public servants to “strive to make a difference to the wellbeing of New Zealand and all its people”.

Improving people’s wellbeing (including setting the environment for people to pursue their own wellbeing) is also the main objective of the core analytical tool of the New Zealand Treasury; the Living Standards Framework (Treasury, 2021[3]). At a societal level high interpersonal trust is both an indicator of an effectively functioning society and contributes directly to peoples’ wellbeing (OECD, 2017[4]; Algan and Cahuc, 2010[5]; Helliwell and Wang, 2010[6]; OECD, 2017[4]; OECD, 2011[7]; The Treasury, 2021[8]).

The academic literature recognises a strong link between interpersonal and institutional trust, although it is not conclusive about the causal direction. Some studies underline that interpersonal trust may function mostly as a predictor of political or institutional trust, and thus the level of social capital in a society explains institutional outcomes (Lipset and Schneider, 1983[9]). For example, a study using data from Australia concludes that if people trust their family and friends, they will have higher trust in their local and national representatives and government (Job, 2005[10]). Similarly, using data from the European Social Survey in Finland, researchers find that interpersonal trust has a strong impact on all levels of political trust (Bäck and Kestilä, 2009[11]). Rothstein and Uslaner argue that there is a reciprocal relationship between interpersonal trust and institutional trust (Rothstein and Uslaner, 2005[12]). Interpersonal trust is high in places where people can be confident that institutions will function impartially and effectively in event of a conflict. At the same time, effective and impartial institutions depend ultimately on a society in which most people are trustworthy.

It is important not only that public institutions are effective, but also that they are seen to behave in a way that is fair and consistent with the values that they are supposed to embody and uphold. The intrinsic value of trustworthy institutions is reflected in the New Zealand Treasury’s Living Standards Framework through the engagement and voice dimension of current wellbeing and in the Public Service Commission’s work programme aimed at enhancing trust (States Services Commission, 2020[13]).

Following South Korea (OECD/KDI, 2018[14]), Finland (OECD, 2021[15]) and Norway (OECD, 2022[16]) this is the fourth OECD country study on the drivers of trust in public institutions. The report analyses the main drivers of people’s trust in public institutions in New Zealand, focusing on public governance reforms and actions that can help regain and maintain high trust.

The report relies on the OECD framework on the drivers of trust in public institutions that lays out key public governance drivers of trust (reliability, responsiveness, openness, integrity and fairness of government), as well as cultural and political drivers, and government’s capacity on global and intergenerational challenges (Brezzi et al., 2021[17]). It is the first one to benefit from a large cross-country comparative evidence collected via the 2021 OECD Trust Survey (OECD, 2022[18]). In particular, New Zealand is compared1 to other small, advanced economies as well as other Anglophone countries with similar institutional and historic background.

This introductory chapter presents an overview of the theoretical and practical relevance of trust in public institutions by reviewing available sources of information on institutional trust in New Zealand and discussing the evolution of institutional trust over time. Before diving into the results of the OECD survey on the drivers of trust in public institutions, presented at length in chapters 2-4, this chapter discusses some of the underlying public management reasons explaining comparatively high levels of trust in New Zealand. Finally, it presents in detail the OECD framework on the drivers of trust in public institutions and measurement methodology constituting the basis of this report.

Levels of trust are high in New Zealand when compared to other OECD countries. While New Zealand’s position in terms of measured trust varies depending on the measure used, it is consistently towards the upper end of the distribution of countries, a result that is consistent with the survey conducted for this study. Figure 1.1 shows the proportion of the population reporting confidence in the public service2 for New Zealand and the benchmarking group of small advanced economies and anglophone countries many of which are also high trusting countries. In New Zealand, 55% of the population trust the public service, a proportion above the OECD average and in the middle of the reference group countries, after Ireland, Finland, Norway, and the United Kingdom but above Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

Almost half of respondents in New Zealand trust parliament (47%), 8 percentage points higher than the average across OECD countries (Figure 1.2). Across OECD countries, parliaments and political parties are the least trusted public institutions. In terms of trust in parliament New Zealand fares comparatively well, only after Norway, Finland, Denmark and Ireland. Annex A presents complementary figures on comparative levels of trust for other institutions.

Other sources of data on trust in public institutions find that New Zealand ranks consistently among the high trusting countries on trust in government, parliament and public service. For example, according to the Gallup World Poll, 63% of New Zealanders trusted the government in 2021, behind only Switzerland, Norway, Finland and Denmark among 28 OECD countries (Gallup World Poll, 2021[19])3. Box 1.1 presents some historical and institutional factors that contribute to the comparatively high levels of trust in New Zealand.

Trust in government in New Zealand has remained high and stable over the past 15 years, while it decreased in other countries with similar cultural characteristics, particularly in the period prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (Figure 1.3). The figure shows, for example, that trust in government in Australia and the United States decreased from the start of the period and remained low up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trust in Ireland decreased severely after the 2007/2008 global financial crises. In contrast, levels of trust in New Zealand remained high and have slightly increased over the 2006-2021 period.

In most countries the main source for trust in government before the 2000s is the World Values Survey (WVS) with increasing country coverage since then. The WVS captures trust in parliament, the police and trust in others. In New Zealand, the results show a positive trend for trust in all institutions, with a significant increase for trust in parliament between 1998 and 2004. This reflects a particularly low level of confidence in Parliament during the first term of government following the introduction of a Mixed Member Proportional Representation System (MMP), a period where the parliament was coming to terms with the new system and the composition of parties supporting the government changed between elections. The increase in institutional trust from 2000 to 2019 shown in Figure 1.4 is confirmed by other sources such as the Kantar Public Sector Reputation Index 2021 (Colmar Brunton, 2021[22]), which shows similar trends. Trends over time are also consistent with other surveys such as the New Zealand General Social Survey (NZGSS) showing gradual rises in measures of institutional trust up until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and broadly stable levels of interpersonal trust. Additional surveys such as the survey from the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies4 (IGPS) find similar patterns (Chapple and Pricket, 2019[23]; Chapple and Prickett, 2022[24]). Although questions are not strictly comparable a similar pattern is found in the Kiwis Count survey (Public Service Commission, 2022[1]) (Box 1.2).

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted countries across the world and seen government intervention in society to control the disease on a scale with no recent comparisons. Government responses, however, have varied significantly in effectiveness. The best-performing government have succeeded in limiting both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 while less successful responses have been associated with high death tolls and a sharp economic downturn. Because the effectiveness of many public health interventions – such as lockdowns or vaccination – is grounded in public confidence in the advice provided by health authorities, levels of institutional trust have been an important factor in the different levels of effectiveness in responding to COVID-19 seen in different countries. Similarly, more effective public responses to the pandemic might be expected to result in higher levels of trust in government.

New Zealand had one of the most effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic of any nation. Although New Zealand’s distance from other countries, small size, and island status undoubtedly contributed to making COVID-19 relatively easier to manage in New Zealand than for many other countries, a rapid, coherent, and strong response to the pandemic underpinned by broad public support was a major contributor to the effective control of the spread of COVID-19.

Differences between countries in deaths due to COVID-19 may be affected at the margin by differences in how countries classify the cause of death. An alternative measure of the mortality impact of COVID-19 is to look at excess deaths compared to previous years. Contrary to expectations in a pandemic, both New Zealand and Australia saw the mortality rate fall during COVID-19 (Figure 1.6). This is almost certainly due to the fact that public health measures targeting COVID-19 were also highly effective at limiting the spread of other respiratory infections – such as influenza – that account for a significant portion of mortality at older age groups.

New Zealand was comparatively unusual in its response to COVID-19 in that it pursued a strategy of elimination rather than suppression or mitigation for most of the 2020-2021 period. In other words, rather than trying to limit the spread of the disease to a level that the health system could manage without collapse, New Zealand aimed to reduce COVID-19 cases in the community to zero. This involved introducing some of the most stringent public health measures in the world when the disease first appeared in New Zealand in March 2020 and again when the Delta variant of COVID-19 appeared in August 2021 (Figure 1.7). Only when the proportion of fully immunised (two vaccinations) adults reached 90% in late 2021 and the much more contagious Omicron variant entered the country did New Zealand move to a suppression and mitigation strategy.

Figure 1.7 charts the severity of COVID-19 responses for selected countries over the 2020 to 2022 period6. Compared to Sweden, which adopted a much lighter-touch policy response, or even Australia – which was closer to New Zealand in its approach – it is evident that New Zealand’s initially strong approach to COVID-19 allowed the country to rapidly return to a much lighter level of intervention than most other countries once community transmission of COVID-19 had been eliminated in the country. In fact, New Zealand’s elimination strategy was sufficiently successful that for most New Zealanders life went on largely as normal for between June 2020 and August 2021.

When New Zealand’s elimination strategy was first introduced many commentators were concerned that too much weight was being placed on public health goals at the expense of the economy (Hickey, 2020[27]). Contrary to these concerns, New Zealand’s overall economic performance during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic has been exceptionally strong with New Zealand experiencing a shorter period of economic contraction than other comparable countries (OECD, 2022[28]). This relatively strong economic performance is consistent with evidence that relatively stringent public health measures are unlikely to have large negative economic impacts compared to the alternative scenario (Sheridan et al., 2020[29]). In New Zealand’s case the relatively strong economic performance is likely to be grounded in the fact that the more stringent public health measures associated with New Zealand’s elimination strategy were short in duration and allowed the economy to function closer to normality than was the case in countries pursuing a mitigation or suppression strategy.

In addition, New Zealand implemented a simple and effective communication strategy that proved highly effective. It gave a prominent role to expertise, delivered concise and clear messages very frequently and was built in an inclusive manner, around a narrative of common societal goals and the construction of community. In turn, public institutions delivered a coordinated and potent answer that contributed to reassuring people and their building trust towards institutions.

New Zealand’s effective response to COVID-19 is associated with an increase in levels of trust in government institutions. Figure 1.8. shows the difference between trust levels over the 2020-2021 period in New Zealand and a 2018 baseline. Importantly, this increase in trust was larger for those institutions associated with the COVID-19 response (e.g. the Health system) and smaller for institutions with a weaker public health role (the Police) and private institutions (the media). This suggests that the trust increases are associated with the effectiveness of the public health response rather than a more general “all in it together” effect.

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and is the entry/exit point for the majority of travellers. As a result of these factors Aucklanders’ experience of the pandemic was very different to that of other New Zealanders. All major New Zealand COVID-19 outbreaks hit Auckland first and Auckland spent a much longer period under stringent lockdown than was the case for the rest of the country.

Despite this experience there is no evidence how COVID-19 affected levels of trust in Auckland differently from the rest of New Zealand during the period from mid-2020 to mid-2021(Figure 1.9). While average levels of institutional trust tend to be marginally higher in Auckland than in the rest of the country, there is no evidence that trends in trust over this time differed significantly between Auckland and the rest of the country. It is, however, important to caveat this with the fact that the trust series ends before the long Delta-related lockdown in Auckland from August to December 2021.

Although levels of trust appear to have increased in New Zealand with the response to COVID-19, as the pandemic has dragged on, strains have begun to show that could influence levels of trust in the medium to long run. This is particularly the case for the sectors of the New Zealand economy that are more dependent on international connections. Two parts of the New Zealand economy were particularly impacted by COVD-19. The first of these was the tourism and hospitality sector which was affected both by domestic restrictions on travel and social gatherings as well as by the loss of international tourism. The impact on the tourism sector was particularly acute given that tourism is New Zealand’s largest export industry. According to Statistics New Zealand substantial net falls in employment were seen in accommodation and food services as well as transport, postal, and warehousing (Statistics New Zealand, 2022[30]). Both these sectors are strongly linked to tourism (as is arts and recreation which is a smaller sector and suffered a smaller absolute fall). Similarly, if less obviously, the large fall in education and training reflects the fact that New Zealand has a large export education sector dependent on the arrival of foreign students.

The second impact of COVID-19 restrictions was on those parts of the New Zealand economy heavily dependent on migrant labour. This includes large parts of New Zealand’s primary sector with a particular impact in the horticulture and wine industries. One noticeable feature of the economic impact of COVID-19 is that it was asymmetrical between the major urban centres and provincial regions. Both tourism and primary industries were negatively impacted by COVID-19 and are important in provincial New Zealand. In contrast, the major urban centres are much more dependent on industries that saw employment growth during the pandemic such as health care, public administration, and professional, technical, and scientific services. This may explain why the anti-mandate protests of February and March 2022 were dominated by people from outside the major urban areas (Box 1.3).

While trust has been acknowledged as important for a long time (Arrow, 1972[33]), it has not traditionally been part of the portfolio of official statistics produced by most developed countries nor has there been extensive empirical analysis of the drivers of trust. Nonetheless, given the importance of trust, advancing its measurement is essential.

In the last decade the OECD has increasingly recognised the importance of trust to economic outcomes and to wellbeing more broadly. This is reflected both in the work programme on the drivers of institutional trust of which this study is a part (Brezzi et al., 2021[17]; OECD, 2017[34]; OECD/KDI, 2018[14]; OECD, 2021[35]; OECD, 2022[16]), and in work to develop OECD Guidelines on Measuring Trust (OECD, 2017[4]) to support national statistical offices and other data providers improving the underlying evidence base while putting forward concrete measurement instruments.

The OECD Guidelines on Measuring Trust define trust as:

A person’s belief that another person or institution will act consistently with their expectations of positive behaviour

This definition is built around two important elements. First, trust is concerned with beliefs or expectations. Trust matters because these expectations condition how people behave in response to interactions with other people and institutions. Second, trust focuses on expectations of positive behaviour. Fundamentally trust concerns the ability of person to act with a reasonable expectation that those people and institutions that they interact with can be relied on to behave in a competent fair and honest manner.

While the measurement of trust is grounded in the broad definition given above, different questions capture different measurement concepts. In particular, it is important to be clear about who is being trusted and the difference between trust and the drivers of trust. The OECD identifies five broad categories of trust based on analysis of the World Values Survey (OECD, 2017[36]). These include generalised interpersonal trust, trust in people known to the respondent, trust in non-governmental institutions, trust in political institutions, and trust in law and order institutions.

This study focuses predominantly on institutional trust or people’s expectations of positive behaviour by public institutions, which could also be called their trustworthiness. Nevertheless, even when limited to people’s trust in public institutions the scope of this study remains very broad as it encompasses both a political and an administrative dimension. ‘Political trust’ refers to an assessment of elected leaders (i.e. the parliament), while ‘administrative trust’ refers to the institutions that form the core of public administration. These institutions include those entities that are in charge of policy design and service delivery, such as the public service. A key challenge for addressing institutional trust is that these dimensions (i.e. institutional and political trust) could be influenced by similar factors (OECD/KDI, 2018[14]). This report builds on the understanding that institutional performance can influence institutional trust. It is built around the framework for understanding and measuring the drivers of institutional trust (Table 1.1) and presents primary evidence through a population survey implemented for such purpose on the drivers of institutional trust in New Zealand (See Section 2.1).

The OECD has developed a framework on the determinants of public trust that encompasses two broad categories: competences and values (OECD, 2017[36]). Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Framework has been reviewed through a consultative process including academics, practitioners and civil society entitled “Building a New Paradigm for Public Trust,” which engaged over 800 policy makers, civil servants, researchers, data providers and representatives from the private and non-profit sectors across six webinars between 2020 and 2021 (Brezzi et al., 2021[17]) .

The framework finds consistency in the literature regarding specific attributes that matter for trust and may be amenable to policy action, in relation to two broad components, competences and values.

  • Trust as competence: Competence is a necessary condition for trust – an actor with good intentions but without the ability to deliver on expectations cannot be trusted. The provision of public goods and services (from security and crisis management to public health and education) is one of the principal activities exercised by government. However, citizens depend on the ability of governments to actually deliver the services they need, at the quality level they expect.

  • Trust as values: When it comes to influencing trust, the process of policy making and its guiding motivations are just as important as actual results. Citizens expect not only effective policies to improve socio-economic conditions, but also irreproachable behaviour.

In turn within these two broad categories, the framework identifies five main drivers of trust in government institutions. Whitin competence they capture the degree to which institutions are responsive and reliable in delivering policies and services, and act in line with the values of openness, integrity and fairness. The revision of the Framework intended to guide public efforts to recover trust in government during and after the crisis, with a particular focus on building back more inclusively, e.g. by taking into account socioeconomic, political and cultural differences, and by generating buy-in to address challenging, long-term, intergenerational issues like climate change. These drivers interact to influence people’s trust in public institutions and are compounded by countries’ economic, social, and institutional situations. Table 1.1 presents the updated OECD framework on the drivers of trust in public institutions.

According to this competence-values approach, citizens assess government from the perspective of how service delivery responds to people’s needs and expectations, but also with respect to the efficacy and fairness of the policy-making process and its outcomes. Furthermore, the framework provides guidance on measuring trust, on its monitoring over time, and on analysing the factors that may drive it in the future. In turn, following the revision of the framework it now includes explicitly as determinants of public trust political attitudes and participation, satisfaction with public services and the evaluation of government action on long-term global challenges (Brezzi et al., 2021[17]).

The next chapter presents the OECD Trust Survey and the different factors that influence trust in public institutions in New Zealand. As trust is a multidimensional construct that alongside the performance of public institutions depends on a number of individual economic, cultural and socioeconomic determinants to a certain extent these are all covered in the coming chapter even if not directly measured by the survey. Still, this case study of trust in public institutions places specific emphasis on the public governance drivers and potential actions that New Zealand administration could take to influence them.


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← 1. New Zealand is systematically compared to Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

← 2. Trust in the Public Service is considered as the reference measure as trust in government was not included in the New Zealand Survey to comply with restrictions set by the Political Neutrality Principle governing the public service and to avoid confusion as the term “national government” could be associated with one of the two major parties in New Zealand “national party” the wording of this question will be re-visited for further waves of the survey

← 3. It should be noted that responses for the OECD Trust Survey are on a Likert-scale from 0 (no trust at all) to 10 (complete trust) while the World Gallup Poll questions are on a binary scale (trust/do not trust). For this reason the proportion of respondents who trust an institution according to the OECD Trust survey (responses between 6-10) may be lower than from the World Gallup Poll (Nguyen, Frei, González and Brezzi, 2022).

← 4. The main exception is that the IGPS shows a fall in trust in parliament over the COVID period.

← 5. The cumulative p-score is calculated as - 1. It captures the percentage difference in actual deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to what would have been expected over the same period had prior patterns of mortality persisted.

← 6. The measure of stringency of COVID-19 responses included here is based off the OxCGRT project Containment and Health Index, a composite measure of thirteen of the response metrics. This index builds on the Stringency Index, is calculated on the basis of the following thirteen metrics: school closures; workplace closures; cancellation of public events; restrictions on public gatherings; closures of public transport; stay-at-home requirements; public information campaigns; restrictions on internal movements; international travel controls; testing policy; extent of contact tracing; face coverings; and vaccine policy.

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