Trust— necessary fuel for effective governance

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Future of Government Fifth Disruptive Debate Future of Government Fifth Disruptive Debate

The fifth Future of Government Disruptive Debate convened experts from around the world to share their views on trust in governments. Public trust has become an increasingly challenging issue especially during the pandemic, feeding into the broader debate around renewing the social contract between governments and citizens.  Trust in political leadership has been especially strained during COVID-19 as not all politicians and leaders have adhered to government mandates and policies regarding, for example, lockdowns, vaccines and masking, creating distrust, discord and concerns about just and fair treatment.

Aidan Eyakuze, the Executive Director of Twaweza East Africa, stressed that governments need to answer two central questions. First, do they have the people’s best interest at heart or are they more interested in retaining power? Caring about people might sometimes include governments admitting that they do not know all the answers and consulting with citizens on what their priorities are. The second question relates to governments’ competence. Governments need to be clear about what their strengths are to solve the problems people face: what capacities do they have? They need to have the fiscal and legal capacity to effectively solve problems.

Michael Muthukrishna, Associate Professor of Economic Psychology at the London School of Economics, explained that collective action depends on the extent to which citizens trust each other. If trust is absent, we would have several competing societies within the same country. Governments need to communicate that everybody is subject to the rule of law regardless of their upbringing or connections. If governments fail to build this trust, people will only trust their families, friends, and ethnic and religious groups. Once social norms about trusting one’s clan over the state solidify, it will become a norm among leaders, parliamentarians, and business owners, leading to corruption, nepotism, and cronyism. This, in turn, undermines institutional trust.

Should governments deliver based on what citizens need or on what they want? Julius Mukunda, Executive Director of the Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group in Uganda, argued that although citizens’ expectations about what governments can (and should) do have increased, citizens understand that resources are limited. If a government is transparent about what services it can deliver to its citizens, they will trust that it’s doing its best . After all, elected leaders and bureaucrats are not superhumans. Also, governments tend to be more wasteful than the private sector. Facebook users can go to other social media platforms, but it is more difficult to change national governments, at least in the African context. Local or regional governments can be more accountable since they provide basic services and citizens have direct and frequent contact with them.

Sonia Cooper, Chief Executive Officer of Ipswich City Council in Australia, added that governments would benefit from showcasing their vulnerability. When they make mistakes, they should admit it. This helps build trust. The current unpredictable pandemic environment has caused many governments to make mistakes, but unfortunately these were not always publicly recognized and acknowledged. She explained how Ipswich’s newly elected government ran basic services more like the private sector, treating citizens as customers to gain their trust. In a local government, where several previous leaders were convicted and imprisoned for corruption, this was a major transformation compared to the earlier mode of delivery.

Finally, Jaimie Boyd, former Chief Digital Officer of the Government of British Colombia, agreed that trust can be reinforced by providing reliable services. After all, governments’ raison d'être is to serve people and businesses. Nevertheless, their relationship with citizens cannot be based on transactions alone. She pointed to an unprecedented suite of tools to provide services in a trustworthy manner (such as online proof of COVID-19 vaccination) but added that new tools need to be built to facilitate trust in the Internet age. Governments should be defending people’s rights online as it is tightly related to their legitimacy to govern. 

The panelists agreed that government employees are immersed in building trust, since their attitude toward citizens matters immensely. In cases where the social contract has frayed, it is the first responders and frontline workers who enable governments to change the culture for the better, as was the case during the pandemic. Who is better at building trust: bureaucrats or elected officials? Surveys have indicated that people trust politicians the least and practitioners who deliver frontline services the most. 

You can watch the replay of the debate here.

What are your thoughts on trust in governments? You can contribute to this debate via Twitter @wbg_gov and using the hashtag #FutureOfGovernment; via our website at or by simply leaving a comment below.

Blogs in the Future of Government series:


Donna Andrews

Global Lead for Public Institutions Reform in the Governance Global Practice, World Bank

Tim Williamson

Tim Williamson, World Bank’s Global Lead for Public Financial Management, Public Investment Management and Subnational Governance for the World Bank

Marje Aksli

Consultant, World Bank

Samuel Garoni

Governance Specialist, Governance Global Practice

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