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Public Trust as a Key Concern for Public Administration Theory and Practice

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nevbahar Ertas 
September 2, 2022

Public trust is one of the critical policy and administrative issues the pandemic has brought to the forefront. In my first essay for PA Times, I summarized some of the themes public policy and administration (PPA) scholars have identified for a post-pandemic research agenda. Public trust appears as a key concept in those discussions, whether it is classified under the theme of public engagement, social equity or governance. Furthermore, in a recent 2022 editorial titled “The Future of Public Administration” in Public Integrity, Professor Marc Holzer also lists public trust as the first of seven key concerns that “stand at the forefront of possible progress in public administration theory and practice.” Studying and understanding evolving concerns about public trust is critical for students and practitioners of public administration.

What is the current state of public trust in the government in the United States?

A democratically elected government that can inspire confidence, trust and consent of the citizenry is essential to civic life. The “consent of the governed”—the idea that government power is derived from the people—is an idea deeply rooted in political philosophy. This idea is embraced in the United States Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Article 21 of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.

Since trust is the foundation upon which the legitimacy of democratic institutions rest, there have been a number of efforts to track trust in government and public institutions. What this data shows is that American’s trust in government has eroded dramatically over the years. When the National Election Study first asked about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans reported trusting the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Since 2007, only 30 percent or less respond the same way. Furthermore, there are large partisan gaps and fluctuations in trust across the years depending on the alignment between political views and the party in power. According to the latest Pew survey, in 2022, those reporting trust in government correspond to 29 percent of Democrats and only 9 percent of Republicans.

Trust in government and the pandemic: Fundamental questions in policy and trust research

Trust in government is a cornerstone of the political system, particularly in times of crises such as a pandemic. This is because trust in government is crucial to public’s compliance with policies and prevention efforts. Declining levels and partisan gaps in trust will continue to create challenges for elected officials and public servants and present many avenues of research to pursue for PPA scholars. Trust in government may be thought of both as an outcome and antecedent of government effectiveness. As for the latter, there are many questions to inquire to understand the dynamics of trust, and how it facilitates and hinders policy responses. To what extent, distrust of government and disengagement from democratic processes deter policy compliance? Which factors influence generalized trust in government? Are there differences between generalized trust and trust in government’s capacity to address global and intergenerational issues? Specifically, what are the determinants of trust in government regarding the ability and efficacy of COVID-19 control? What are the cultural, socioeconomic and political drivers of each dimension of public trust? So far, analysis of cross-country data from 23 countries showed that higher trust in government regarding COVID-19 control was related to higher adoption of health behaviors such as handwashing, self-quarantining and avoiding crowds and lower rates of decline in these behaviors over time. An interesting study analyzing county-level cellphone data from the United States suggests that partisanship also influences this relationship between trust and compliance, depending upon the actor delivering the policy message and the partisan sentiments in the communities.

In addition to how trust influences policy responses, another aspect to research regarding trust and the coronavirus would be focusing on the impact of the pandemic on trust. Professor Shaun Goldfinch and colleagues have examined this question using data from Australia and New Zealand and showed that trust in government increased during the Covid-19 pandemic in these two countries. Comparative research in countries with different cultural and political systems and differing approaches to Covid-19 management are worthy of future research and will inform the policy making process by clarifying the impact of differences in government response, capacity, transparency, regulation and inclusiveness.

For both research perspectives, the evidence is incomplete but growing. If you want to learn more about what research has found so far, Professor Daniel Devine and colleagues review 12 studies, some of which I referred to above, in “Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic: What are the Consequences of and for Trust? An Early Review of the Literature” in the Political Studies Review. As PPA scholars and practitioners, we will continue to discuss and study drivers and consequences of public trust, because it is the foundation upon which the legitimacy of democratic institutions and policy making processes rest.

Author: Nevbahar Ertas is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Her research focuses broadly on public service, and public administration and policy.

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