The collapse of trust in government: Will democracy survive?

Around the world, from fragile states to apparently robust and mature democracies, the evidence increasingly suggests that public confidence in democratic institutions and processes is evaporating. DLP Director Dr Heather Marquette joined a panel discussion at the Challenges of Government Conference 2016 (May 19) that considered whether democracy could survive the collapse of trust in government.

The conference is hosted annually by the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. This year’s theme was government reform, asking how to best meet the needs of citizens.

Given that 70% of national populations surveyed do not trust their governments and, in many parts of the world, voter turn-out has rarely been so low, what can be done to restore integrity and values in government?

Heather’s fellow panelists were the former Danish Finance Minister Bjarne Corydon, now Global Director of the McKinsey Center for Government; Bo Rothstein, Professor of Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government; and Stephan Shakespeare, founder and CEO of the innovative research and polling company YouGov.

blavatnik school of governmentA number of questions from the floor came from citizens of countries grappling with pressing threats to their democracies; for instance, Mongolia, where democracy has managed to take root since the peaceful revolution of 1990, and yet the idea that authoritarian leadership would work better still has considerable support from some factions; or Romania, where a significant body of public opinion questions whether poor and poorly educated citizens should have voting rights.

Heather voiced her concern about the unintended consequences of the imposition of democratic governance as a condition of support from the international community, particularly for post-conflict countries. Where trust is already extremely low, democracy itself is likely to pose yet another challenge rather than providing a solution. She also asked whether two decades of focus on governance by donors and practitioners had, in fact, eroded trust by focusing the attention of electorates on their governments’ flaws.

Current research in Indonesia about public perceptions of corruption has shown, she said, that the effect of anti-corruption messaging is not to encourage action against it; instead it tends to put people off engaging in politics at all. Future research might examine whether such messaging in fact pushes voters towards ‘Big Man’ politics and support for populist, extreme politicians intent on manipulating a fearful electorate with promises to ‘clean up government’.

Part of the answer, she suggested, was that efforts to rebuild trust should focus on addressing the general lack of trust in politicians and political parties – the public institution trusted least in many democratic countries, lagging far behind law enforcement agencies and the military.

Heather also spoke about the work being done by the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence to revive the debate about pride in public service. She argued for a shift in focus from the negatives of governance and corruption towards the positive contribution to society of a public sector staffed by motivated people who have integrity. Changing the message to ‘there’s a positive side to public service’ would be a step towards changing public attitudes.

For more details, see the video of this panel discussion.

Images: Heather Marquette (© Blavatnik School of Government); and conference venue the Blavatnik School of Government (Paul Hayday/Flickr).

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The Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) is an international research initiative that explores how leadership, power and political processes drive or block successful development.

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