Interview – Trust in Government


Trust has been a recurrent theme in public administration research and practice, but it has reached a systematic level of concern in the aftermath of the economic crisis. Thus the need to build trust in government has received prominent attention by international organizations and national governments. For example, the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) dedicated its 14th session to this theme in April 2015.

The IIAS has also largely focused on this crucial issue through its Knowledge Portal and the work of its Study Group “Trust and Public Attitudes”. Moreover, it will devote its 2015 International Congress in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) in June to “Trust in Public Administration”.

But what is trust exactly and why is it so important for good governance? How to raise the level of trust within and towards public administration? We invited a practitioner (Dr. Katju Holkeri) and an academic (Prof. Gregg Van Ryzin) to exchange their views on key aspects and current developments of this major issue for the legitimacy of Public Administration, democratic political systems and the effective design and delivery of public services.

What is trust for you? Why trust is so important for good governance?

GVR:  Trust involves an expectation that the other person (or institution) will help and not harm you. It often includes a willingness to share information or resources, with the expectation that the other party will reciprocate and not take advantage of you.

Trust is absolutely essential for good governance because the public sector depends a great deal on the cooperation of citizens and their willingness to share information, obey rules, and contribute both financial and human resources (such as paying taxes and volunteering) to achieve public purposes.  If citizens do not trust their government leaders and institutions, the society eventually becomes ungovernable (other than by terror and violence).

KH: For me trust is actions. Trust is an underlying value on which our work is based. We talk about it often and in impressive terms, but in the end it is the actions that count. In Finland the level of trust has traditionally been high, but if we want to keep it that way, it means that even more than before trust as our value must show in the daily work, in everything we do. Trust is actions, decisions and behaviours.

What leads people either to trust or to distrust government? Which factors do support or hinder trust in government?

GVR: The tendency is to think that the performance of government matters most for establishing trust. But a fair amount of research, including some of my own research, suggests that citizens care a great deal about process issues such as fairness, respectful treatment, and honesty. In other words, the manner in which government conducts its affairs strongly influences citizens’ trust judgments.

KH: Again it is actions that count. People must be able to see that public governance is based on values, a joint culture and common principles and manners that have a strong ethical basis. But it also means that actions are taken if somebody acts against these values. Values have to be visible; people have to be able to see what the values are that guide our actions, and we have to stick to them also in critical circumstances.

How to measure trust in government?

GVR: Most often, trust is measured through surveys of citizens in which they are directly asked how much they trust government. The Eurobarometer, the World Values Survey, and other established surveys each have their standard ways of asking trust questions. In my own research lately, I prefer a new question from the American National Election Studies that asks “what percent of the time” people trust the government “to do what is best for the country” and “to make decisions in a fair way”, as this gets at both outcome-based and process-based trust. But these self-report survey measures are sometimes criticized for being biased. Thus some researchers, such as behavioral economists, prefer explicit behavioral indicators of trust, such as giving away your own money (in the expectation that the other party will reciprocate).

KH: Measuring trust is of course truly difficult and often we get results that maybe show more the poll-like topical phenomena. It is truly valuable that there is work going on that aims at figuring out how to measure the underlying long term changes in trust that come from structural changes and development work, and help us in mapping the high risk areas of mistrust.

How to improve trust in the public sector? Could you give us some examples?

GVR: First, in my view, government must do all it can to combat corruption, which is perhaps to surest way to destroy trust in government. Second, government must treat citizens fairly and equally—the process issue again. Take for example what is happening now in the US with respect to the police and the African American community. Basically, the problem is a long history of the police treating black citizens with a lack of fairness and respect, relative to white citizens. This has created an unhealthy dynamic, as distrust of the police leads to less cooperation and obedience on the part of citizens, which leads to more confrontation and violence (including police shootings), which leads to more distrust, and so on.  Improving trust of the police will be difficult for the US, but certainly promoting more fairness and respect in policing practices is part of the solution. Also, including more African Americans in the police force, especially in leadership positions, can improve perceptions of fairness and enhance trust.

KH: This is possible only if government’s structures and actions are understandable to the citizens. The language that we use has to be clear and our work comprehensible. Trust can be supported by engaging citizens into the development and reform of our welfare society. In this they are so far a huge unused resource. Citizens need to be included in the policy-making already in the early phases of the policy cycle. All the information that relates to the decision-making and the alternative solutions need to be provided in an understandable way. The information linked to the decisions need to be open and available. Furthermore the public sector leaders need to act as role models in putting the value base we have into the actions.

How to develop further research on trust in PA in the future? What are your projects in this perspective?

GVR: I think PA research should continue to examine both the antecedents and consequences of trust of government. In terms of my own work, I’ve published two studies that show how perceptions of government process (such as fairness and respect) influence trust—even more so than government performance or outcomes—using both US and international survey data. With respect to the corruption issue, Manuel Villoria, Cecilia Lavena, and I used survey data from Spain to examine how administrative corruption (following a corruption scandal in that country) influenced trust of government, including citizens’ willingness to obey rules. And recently, I have been doing some experimental studies with Norma Riccucci and Huafang Li that look at how representative bureaucracy influences perceptions of fairness, trust and cooperation. Although we have studied gender representativeness, I would expect that the enhanced trust we observed with a more representative government would also hold true for race, ethnicity and other social categories. Experimental research is especially promising, I believe, because it helps us understand the true causes of trust (or distrust) and thus the likely effectiveness of proposed solutions.

What is the added value of trust for public administration reforms in Finland?

KH: Trust is the basis of public governance. Trust capital is a very important resource in implementing reforms in the society especially when other resources are diminishing. Even large reforms can be implemented, when citizens trust government and different government actors trust each other, trust businesses and the third sector actors. Once trust is lost it is very difficult to gain back. Losing trust makes public governance and its development more difficult. This can further lead to a growing sustainability gap when needed reforms are not achieved.


Katju Holkeri is currently the Head of Unit for Governance Policy in The Personnel and Public Governance Department in the Finnish Ministry of Finance. Her main responsibility areas at her department are the following: General Governance Policy, Open Government, Central Government Reform, International and OECD co-operation as well as Steering systems. She is also involved in citizen consultation and participation projects and public service quality initiatives like promoting the self-assessment tool CAF in the Finnish public sector.

Gregg G. Van Ryzin is Professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers University—Newark, USA. His research employs surveys and experiments to understand how citizens evaluate and respond to public services and institutions. He has published widely in public administration and policy journals and is author (with Dahlia K. Remler) of Research Methods in Practice (SAGE).

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