Public Trust Survey 2018: Greater trust in Government

Dr Michael Macaulay, Associate Dean Professional Education, Acting Director, MBA, Associate Professor (Public Management), Victoria University of Wellington Business School

Dr Michael Macaulay

TINZ Member with Delegated Authority

Open Government Partnership, Whistleblowing

Its findings run counter to the decline of trust in democratic political institutions as seen within many countries.

Asked whether they trust the government to do what is right for New Zealand, 65 per cent now answered ‘yes’ compared with 48 per cent in 2016. A total of 59 per cent say they trust government to deal successfully with national problems, up from 47 per cent in 2016. Furthermore, 49 per cent think New Zealand citizens’ interests are equally and fairly considered by the government, up from 39 per cent.

The Institute of Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) Director, Dr Simon Chapple, stated “This large boost in trust surrounding government was unexpected and really positive.” As the former Director of the IGPS responsible for the original 2016 survey, I’m slightly less surprised but am no less pleased with such a positive development.

The IGPS work does not look for any rationale behind respondents’ choices. Without detailed further research, nobody can say with any certainty why there has been a rise in trust. But the above results are perhaps not quite so dramatic as some of the headline messages suggest. 

In our original 2016 survey, we found that only 9 per cent of respondents had either lots of or complete trust in government Ministers, with only 8 per cent across the same categories for MPs.  In 2018 those figures have risen only marginally to 14 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.  Whereas the upsurge of trust in the government generally has been notable, it is far less so specifically in relation to Parliamentarians (Members and Ministers).

Why might this be?  And is it important?  Perhaps the broader question is: why do we trust people or institutions to begin with?  There are a number of reasons: we find them to be credible; we know them, or at least we feel we know them; they have proven themselves to be reliable.

All new governments are likely to score relatively highly on these subconscious measures.  The credibility of a new government is underlined by its success in an election.  There tends to be an upsurge of popularity, which relates to the intimacy factor and our sense of knowing a public figure as so many do with Prime Minister Ardern, for example.  Finally, a new government has not yet been tested on its reliability, with resultant reduced-capacity for a negative trust relationship to accrue in that respect.

But the main reason I’m not entirely surprised is that New Zealand continues to score highly on other trust measures both at home (e.g. the Kiwis Count Survey) and abroad (e.g. OECD trust measures).  In many respects it may have been that 2016 was the outlier with the new results showing a return to the mean.  Either way, there is no denying that a high trust culture has positive impacts, and long may New Zealand be inured from the political disruption that is affecting so many democracies at the minute.

Details of the IGPS Public Trust Survey and a RNZ interview with IGPS Director Simon Chapple, reveal other trends including a decline of trust in churches and charities.   

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