One in three fear their government isn't prepared for next pandemic: OECD report

Many people have more trust in police and local authorities than national politicians

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson smiles during a televised press conference at 10 Downing Street on February 22, 2021 in London, England. Getty Images
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The way countries handled the Covid-19 pandemic had a major impact on people's trust in government and resulted in high levels of pandemic fatigue, a new report has found.

According to the OECD’s inaugural Survey on Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions, a little more than a third of respondents believe their government would not be prepared to respond to a future pandemic.

On a more positive note, nearly half (49.4 per cent) have faith that their government would be able to better handle the next health crises.

YouGov, on behalf of the OECD, polled about 50,000 residents in 22 countries to measure and better understand what drives people’s trust in public institutions.

The judiciary, the police, the civic service and some local governments tend to inspire more confidence than national governments, elected officials, political parties and parliament
Elsa Pilichowski, OECD Directorate

While most OECD countries saw an increase in trust in government in 2020 around the start of the pandemic, by mid-2021 this trust had declined in many countries.

“The Covid-19 pandemic and the exceptional measures restricting civil liberties that were taken in many countries bluntly reminded decision-makers and institutions that citizens’ trust towards them and towards their decisions is vital to guarantee the functioning of our democratic societies,” said Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, during the launch of the report.

“If the majority of citizens trusted decision-makers and believed and followed decisions taken by them, the violent and irrational reactions of a tiny fraction of our citizens who lost trust gave us a glimpse of what the lack of trust implies.

“If this lack of trust in politicians persists on a longer-term [basis], we run the risk that it interferes with the institutions themselves, questioning their legitimacy and putting into danger the functioning of our democracies.”

The survey interviewed respondents in 13 of the 22 participating countries in November and December 2021. This corresponded with rising case counts in Europe and interventionist measures such as the closures of public places and the start of vaccine passes.

Across several countries, pandemic fatigue had already set in, especially in Asia where the pandemic has been going on the longest.

Lockdowns, vaccination drives and long-term strict public health protocols left people feeling frustrated with how the pandemic was handled, affecting their views on the government.

Per the report, few people see their government as responsive to their wants and needs, and many see high-level political officials as easily corruptible.

The OECD said governments must take a more holistic approach to building trust, focusing in particular on how to address perceptions of low government responsiveness and integrity.

This will help to “advance the pandemic recovery and help to address the significant policy challenges” countries face today.

As countries fight to emerge from the largest health, economic and social crisis in decades, they urgently need to invest in re-establishing trust to tackle the policy challenges ahead or it could be lost for good, Mr Bettel said.

Room for improvement

The Trust Survey was launched to help governments to understand better where citizen confidence is wavering, where it remains solid, and what needs to be done to close the gap.

Elsa Pilichowski, director of the OECD directorate for public governance, said overall, the results show that OECD countries are performing "reasonably well on average" in many measures of government. These include citizens’ perceptions of government reliability, service provision, and data openness.

“For the majority of participating countries, the survey was run somewhere between a year and a half and two years after the beginning of the pandemic and before the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” she said.

“The results vary considerably because of various cultural, social, institutional, and economic factors, but there's also the specific context of the country at the time when the survey was run and comparisons need to be made cautiously.

“Particularly because in some countries the proportion of people responding that they're neutral, or that they do not know is relatively high.”

Per the results, four out of 10 respondents said they trusted their governments, while four out of 10 said they did not.

Ms Pilichowski said the results showed trust was under strain, but “remained slightly higher on average than in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008”.

The survey revealed large variations across countries, with trust levels above 60 per cent in Finland and Norway and trust levels below 30 per cent in countries such as Australia, Colombia, France, Japan and Latvia.

“At a more granular level when we unpack the data, the judiciary, the police, the civic service and some local governments tend to inspire more confidence than national governments, elected officials, political parties and parliament,” Ms Pilichowski said.

“The first important message of the survey on the drivers of trust is that, on average, citizens in these countries are reasonably confident that they can rely on governments to deliver public services.

“The majority say they are satisfied with the healthcare and educational systems and satisfaction with administrative services is even higher, at 65 per cent for all, on average, across countries.

“I think we can say that this is a remarkable finding considering that the survey was conducted almost two years into the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Looking at the wider picture, more than two-thirds (65.1 per cent) of respondents said they can find information about administrative processes easily, and more than half (51.1 per cent) trust their government to use their personal data safely.

When it comes to national health care, a majority in most countries (61.7 per cent) say they are satisfied with services available to them.

Finland scored the highest on the healthcare scale, with more than 80 per cent of respondents satisfied with their provisions, with Belgium, Korea, Luxembourg and Norway close behind.

Looking at education, about six out of 10 people across all countries are happy with their education system, with those in tertiary education most satisfied.

Finland again came out on top, with more than 90 per cent of respondents from the country giving it the highest rating.

“More than half of respondents, on average cross-nationally, trust their government to use their personal data only for legitimate purposes, and about six in ten think they would be treated fairly if they applied for a benefit,” the report said.

The 22 countries featured in the survey were Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Ireland, Iceland, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

About 2,000 respondents were surveyed from each nation.

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Updated: July 14, 2022, 10:37 AM