The underestimated impact of government distrust in citizens

4 Jul

Governments underestimate the impact of their increasing distrust of citizens on citizens’ trust/distrust in government and democracy. Increasingly distrusting policies and behaviour towards (groups of) citizens are leading to more active distrust by citizens. Citizen support for government and democratic systems hinges on the absence of active distrust. It is therefore important that public leaders and civil servants reflect on their deeply held beliefs that lead to this distrust in policy making and guide their behaviour in the implementation of public policies.

People believe government can be trusted if they experience that it is there for them, sees/respects them, takes their concerns into account; is competent with enough capacity to do its public tasks; and acts with integrity (adheres to principles that citizens find acceptable).

On the other hand, when people experience and believe that the system is not there for them, does not see/respect them, does not take their concerns into account, then they are likely to distrust. This is even more poignant when they feel that the government system takes other people’s concerns into account. This leads to perceptions and beliefs of inequality and inequity. These beliefs are highly normative and trigger strong emotions. Which may drive them to support political parties that are out the overthrow the democratic system.

In this series of blogs we look at this under researched theme. We look at the distrust of public leaders and civil servants in the citizens they are supposed to serve; and at the impact of that distrust on citizens’ trust or distrust in government. After all, trust and distrust are relational and largely reciprocal phenomena. And when one actor distrusts, it is likely that (over time) the other actor will reciprocate and also distrust. In the long run, it takes two to tango where trust is concerned. When in a democratic society mutual distrust takes root, democracy is at risk. The Dutch National Ombudsman has been pointing this out to the Dutch government since the start of this century: when government distrusts its citizens, do not be surprised that these citizens will (eventually) turn their back on you and distrust you back.

In this blog we first look at citizen trust in government and in the next blogs at the under researched theme of government trust or distrust in citizens. There is hardly any direct research into this, but indirectly we can identify patterns. First, from the perspective of policy making, using the recent book by Herd and Moynihan on Administrative Burden (2019) (blog 2). And then from the perspective of the frontline official or street-level bureaucrat as Lipsky (1980) called them (blog 3). In blog 4 we take the perspective of the organization that delivers the public service and look at the organizing principles and their impact on citizen trust or distrust. The series concludes with a blog in which we look more closely at conditions for fighting fraud that do not lead to unnecessary burdens for the well-intentioned citizens and that support procedural justice (blog 5).

Citizen trust in government

We know a lot about what drives citizen trust in government based on regular citizen surveys done within and across countries (e.g. the Eurobarometer or the World Values Survey). Large numbers of (predominantly Political Science) scholars study this citizen or political trust.[1] A lot of attention in this research goes to either contextual differences (country differences) and citizen characteristics (e.g. education, age, income, political preference, ethnic origin). Some research focuses on characteristics of government.

Government performance

In this blog series the focus is on the policy making and policy implementation processes. In the past the dominant assumption (in both practice and research) was that the better government performs, the more citizens trust government; and empirical research supports that assumption. Performance concerns, are the streets clean, safe and without potholes? Are passports, drivers licences and planning permissions provided in a customer-friendly, expedient way? Do I get access to the services I am eligible for, such as welfare benefits or business subsidies? This explains the focus of the New Public Management movement of the 1980-90s and their emphasis on performance-based financing of public services.

Procedural justice

Another explanation emerged several decades ago: it focuses more on the moral judgments that people make when looking at the trustworthiness of government, which after all is a powerful actor in people’s lives. Does government treat its citizens fairly and with respect? We call that procedural justice.[2] But these different explanations were not studied together, until several years ago. That study showed that both the actual output of government services and procedural justice are important, but that the justice/fairness element is more important.[3]

Willing and unable versus able but unwilling

This finding that procedural justice is more important than performance can be linked to wider trust research. Broadly speaking, a person will trust another person (or organization) when they have positive expectations that the other can and will act in line with what they (the trustor) expect and need. So both competence and willingness are important. When those expectations are not met, it makes a difference when that person (the trustor) concludes that the other was incompetent or unwilling. When they conclude that there was lack of competence, the other was willing but unable, they will judge much more mildly, probably lowering their trust but not necessarily start to actively distrust. When, on the other hand, they conclude that the other was able but unwilling, that will probably lead to active distrust. If they believe that they are not treated fairly, being discriminated against, they are more likely to distrust, than when they conclude that the public officer they are dealing with is overworked and limited by rules and lack of resources in what he can do.

Effect of hierarchy

When the other person or organization is in a hierarchical position relative to me, has formal power over me, I will be even more sensitive to procedural justice, to be treated fairly. That is why procedural justice is so important. It signals whether government is benevolent and acts with integrity and respect towards citizens, in other words has good intentions towards citizens. Which explains why procedural justice has such a strong impact on citizens trust in government.  When citizens experience abuse and disrespect or unfair treatment, that signals that government does not care about them, triggering citizen distrust.


[1] For an overview see the Handbook on Political Trust (edited by Sonja Zmerli and Tom van der Meer; Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017).

[2] Tyler, 2006: Why people obey the law.

[3] van Ryzin, 2011.