1. Measuring trust in government to reinforce democracy

Trust in government matters.

Public trust helps governments govern on a daily basis and respond to the major challenges of today and tomorrow: the ongoing health and economic crises, the longstanding rise in inequalities, population ageing, technological advances, and the existential threat of climate change. Sufficiently high levels of institutional trust can help governments reduce transaction costs – in governance, in society, and in the economy – and help ensure compliance with public policies. Trust can help foster public investments in challenging reforms and programmes that produce better outcomes. In democratic countries, moderately high levels of trust – along with healthy levels of public scrutiny – can help reinforce important democratic institutions and norms.

Yet just as public trust serves as an input to governance – helping or hindering policy implementation – public trust is an equally important outcome of governance. Trust is an expression of how people perceive their public institutions and what they expect of their government.

High trust in public institutions is not a necessary outcome of democratic governance, of course. Indeed, low levels of trust measured in democracies are only possible because citizens in democratic systems – unlike in autocratic ones – have much greater freedom to report that they do not trust their government. Critical views and constructive feedback can even be a sign of a healthy democracy. Yet trust remains an important indicator to measure how people perceive the quality of, and how they associate with, government institutions in democratic countries.

From a policy-making perspective, then, it is important for democratic governments to think holistically about both these inputs and outputs: how trust influences policy outcomes, and how trust is influenced by policy processes.

This report explores the relationship between governance and trust by analysing original data from the inaugural OECD Survey on Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions (hereafter “Trust Survey”). Covering twenty-two OECD countries, the Trust Survey is the most thorough cross-national stocktaking of the complex relationship between public trust and democratic governance to date. It offers actionable ways forward to reinforce institutions and democratic cultures.

This report finds that most OECD governments are performing satisfactorily in public perceptions of government reliability, service provision, and data openness, although governments should still strive for better results in these areas. Governments are faring considerably less well, however, in perceptions of key features of advanced democratic governance. Few people see their government as responsive to their wants and needs, and many see high-level political officials as easily corruptible. Disadvantaged groups – young people, women, people with lower incomes and those with less education – are less likely to trust their government and are often sceptical that their government listens to them.

Governments must take a more holistic approach to building trust, considering both processes and outcomes. This means focusing in particular on how to address these perceptions of low government responsiveness and integrity, in order to consolidate the functioning of democratic societies. This will help advance the pandemic recovery and help address the significant policy challenges countries face today.

The Trust Survey took place at a challenging time in most of the surveyed countries: November and December 2021, nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. While most OECD countries saw an uptick in trust in government in 2020 around the start of COVID-19 – the so-called “rally around the flag” effect – by mid-2021 this trust had declined in many countries (Brezzi et al., 2021[1]). The Survey interviewed respondents in 13 of the 22 participating countries at the start of the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, which corresponded with rising case counts and interventionist measures like the closures of public places and the start of vaccine passes. Indeed, in several European countries, the start of Trust Survey interviews corresponded with new national lockdown measures.

Perhaps related to this, many of the European countries are clustered together in the survey results exhibiting moderate to low levels of trust (Figure 1.2). And across countries, “pandemic fatigue” has set in, perhaps especially in Asia – where the pandemic has been going on the longest.1 The Trust Survey therefore presents a point-in-time2 estimate of perceptions of government that, for some questions, represents a particular challenging period for self-assessment. These perceptions may also be influenced, to different degrees across countries, by more “objective” economic or social outcomes of governance, as well as underlying cultural or societal differences across countries.

At the same time, the vast majority of questions asked in the Trust Survey investigate structural and persistent features of governance that predate (and are likely minimally impacted by) the pandemic. These include, for example, questions about the perceived integrity of public servants, the fairness of government programmes, governments’ responsiveness to public feedback, and the reliability of public services. These are structural traits of OECD governments that long preceded – and will long outlast – the current crisis. These questions are based on foundational concepts in the OECD Trust Framework (Box 1.2), which has been developed over the past decade with OECD governments’ feedback.

OECD member countries’ participation in the Trust Survey was optional. The twenty-two countries who volunteered to be in the survey have placed themselves under this microscope to understand better what is driving trust in government in their country and other countries – and to make use of this evidence to explore what policies may contribute to building trust, preserving it or restoring it. Potential levers may include engaging better with diverse populations, responding more effectively to citizens’ needs and growing expectations, improving the design and delivery of public programmes, addressing integrity issues, and adopting public sector reforms that foster stronger, long-term commitments to the people. Such efforts, in turn, should help improve public trust in government institutions. Given the depth of challenges facing democracies going into the third year of the pandemic, the OECD is strongly committed to helping countries rebuild trust.

Countries’ participation in the Trust Survey – in and of itself – represents a high degree of transparency and democratic accountability. It is an impressive commitment to public engagement.

The underlying motivation of the OECD Trust Survey is to understand the drivers of trust in government. To what degree do a government’s competence and values influence trust in public institutions? Survey questions measuring reliability, responsiveness, integrity, fairness and openness reflect the key components of the OECD Trust Framework (Box 1.2).

As the survey data were collated and analysed, however, it became apparent that the results not only illustrate strengths and weaknesses of governments through the rubric of the Framework. The data-driven results also tell an important story about the need to reinforce democracy in OECD countries.

OECD governments are doing satisfactorily on what might be considered baseline measures of effective governance in developed countries. 65.1% of respondents, on average, say they can find information about administrative processes easily (Figure 1.1). A slight majority (51.1%) trust government to use their personal data safely. A majority in most countries say they are satisfied with their national healthcare (61.7%, on average) and education systems (57.6%, on average). About half of respondents (49.4%), cross-nationally, predict that their government will be prepared for the next pandemic (Chapter 4).

There is still significant room for improvement in terms of service provision, information access, and future preparedness, and – importantly – some countries are doing much better than others. But in general, governments are doing reasonably well on these measures of reliability, service provision and access to information.

OECD governments, in short, are governing.

Yet a crucial factor distinguishing democracy from other forms of government is equal opportunities for representation in governance. Trust Survey data illustrate that people in OECD countries see these democratic aspects of governance, in particular, as falling short – both in more bureaucratic policy-making processes and in more explicitly political, democratic processes. This discontent is likely caused by a range of explanations, including socioeconomic outcomes that fall short of people’s expectations for advanced democracies.

A basic signal of this discontent is the Trust Survey’s topline finding on trust. Only about four in ten respondents (41.4%), on average across countries, trust their national government (Figure 1.2). Of course, this average conceals wide variation. The share of people who trust their government reaches over 60% of the population in places like Finland and Norway, but rates are below 30% in about a quarter of countries.3

While fewer than half of respondents trust their national government, on average, it is worth noting that this does not mean a majority distrusts their government. In fact the share that trust and that do not trust are practically evenly split: 41.1%, on average, report that they do not trust their government.

Importantly, in some countries there is also a high degree of neutrality and uncertainty around this question of trust. 14.8% of respondents, on average, hold a neutral position – neither trusting nor distrusting their government – and about 3%, on average, report that they do not know. This group may be important, as they could perhaps be better engaged and persuaded by governments.

Cultural differences across countries may also explain the relative shares of neutral and uncertain responses to questions on trust in different institutions. Japan, for example, has high shares of respondents who either feel neutrally about trust in government or selected “Don’t know,” which is not associated with a number value on the scale. Taken together, a solid majority of respondents (60.2%) in Japan either trust government, hold a neutral view, or report they are unsure whether they trust government. Related to this, the share of respondents who do not trust government in Japan is below the OECD average of people who do not trust government. This suggests relatively high neutrality and an important flexibility in terms of trust in government in Japan. These midrange results for Japan are seen across several results in the survey (Box 2.1).

This finding on trust is driven, in large part, by a lack of confidence in government responsiveness, integrity, and equal opportunities. Results from multiple questions in the Trust Survey consistently illustrate that governments are seen as unresponsive to people’s demands both in policy making and in more obviously democratic processes. Only one third of people (32.9%) think their government would adopt opinions expressed in a public consultation, for example (Figure 1.3). And only about four in ten respondents, on average across countries, say that their government would improve a poorly performing service, implement an innovative idea, or change a national policy in response to public demands (Chapter 5). When considering more overtly democratic political processes, only three in ten say the political system in their country lets them have a say.

Results on perceptions of government integrity are similarly concerning. There is widespread scepticism around the integrity of policy makers: almost half of respondents (47.8%), on average across countries, think a high-level political official would grant a political favour in exchange for the offer of a well-paid private sector job, and over one-third (35.7%) of respondents, on average across countries, consider it likely that a public employee would accept money by a citizen or a firm in exchange for speeding up access to a public service (Chapter 5).

These feelings of disempowerment – a lack of voice in policy making, and the sense that political officials are captive to undue influence – are compounded by persistent, underlying inequalities in society.

The most vulnerable in society – youths, people living on low incomes, those with lower levels of education, and those who feel financially insecure – consistently report lower levels of trust and satisfaction with government (Chapter 3). There is a widespread sense that democratic government is working for some, but certainly not for all.


[1] 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.

[14] Gaigg, V. (2021), “Mehr als 40.000 Teilnehmer und einige Festnahmen bei Demos gegen Corona-Maßnahmen in Wien”, Der Standard, https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000131661460/auch-dieses-wochenende-zig-demos-gegen-corona-massnahmen-und-impfpflicht (accessed on 9 March 2022).

[5] González, S. and C. Smith (2017), “The accuracy of measures of institutional trust in household surveys: Evidence from the oecd trust database”, OECD Statistics Working Papers, No. 2017/11, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/d839bd50-en.

[15] Henley, J. (2021), “Violence in Belgium and Netherlands as Covid protests erupt across Europe”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/21/netherlands-arrests-second-night-covid-protests (accessed on 9 March 2022).

[13] Kihara, L. and D. Leussink (2021), “Pandemic fatigue complicates Japan’s COVID fight, risks recovery delay”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/pandemic-fatigue-complicates-japans-covid-fight-risks-recovery-delay-2021-08-18/ (accessed on 14 February 2022).

[9] Levi, M. and L. Stoker (2000), “Political Trust and Trustworthiness”, Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 3, pp. 475-508, https://doi.org/10.1146/ANNUREV.POLISCI.3.1.475.

[10] Norris, P. (2022), In praise of skepticism: Trust but verify, Oxford University Press, New York, https://www.pippanorris.com/forthcomingbooks (accessed on 11 February 2022).

[8] OECD (2022), Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions in Norway, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/81b01318-en.

[11] OECD (2021), “Building a New Paradigm for Public Trust”, Webinar Series, https://www.oecd.org/fr/gov/webinar-series-building-a-new-paradigm-for-public-trust.htm (accessed on 10 March 2022).

[7] OECD (2021), Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions in Finland, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/52600c9e-en.

[12] OECD (2021), Government at a Glance 2021, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/1c258f55-en.

[2] OECD (2018), OECD Trustlab Initiative, https://www.oecd.org/wise/trustlab.htm (accessed on 9 March 2022).

[4] OECD (2017), OECD Guidelines on Measuring Trust, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264278219-en.

[3] 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.

[6] OECD/KDI (2018), Understanding the Drivers of Trust in Government Institutions in Korea, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264308992-en.


← 1. Media articles on the extent of “pandemic fatigue” and protests against COVID-19 measures cover countries as varied as Austria (Gaigg, 2021[14]), Belgium, Japan (Kihara and Leussink, 2021[13]), the Netherlands (Henley, 2021[15]) and many other countries in which the survey was conducted.

← 2. Other factors, too, can influence trust at a specific point in time, such as the timing of a survey within a political/electoral cycle (e.g. start or end of government mandate) or current events. Austria, for example, had two federal chancellors sworn in between October and December 2021. This likely affected Austria’s results and complicates comparability. Portugal’s survey ran in early 2022, right after a national parliamentary election.

← 3. The results on trust in the national government roughly align with results found in other surveys, particularly in terms of country ordering. The OECD estimates of trust are slightly lower than in some other surveys because the OECD uses a “neutral” category in its continuous scale, rather than a dichotomous “trust”/”do not trust” response option.


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