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Government and public trust

March 31, 2009

The excellent Democratic Society Blog drew my attention to recently published Eurobarometer research on public trust in government.

There’s loads of really (yes really) interesting stuff in it, but it also made me think about the limits of this sort of data.

Just under half of people really trust local government (47%) – but it still scores higher than national government (only 29% of us trust them!) or the EU (25%). At all levels UK trust in government is lower than the EU average, but the general picture of higher trust in regional/local than in national government is the same.

Taken by themselves I can’t tell from these stats whether this is a good news story: 47% of people trust local government, or a bad news story: 48% of people don’t trust local government? Is it reassuring or alarming that more of us trust local than national government?

I also wonder whether the research may already be out of date, at least in relation to national government. The interviews were conducted in October 08 and I suspect that since then the worsening economic situation has led to a further decline in trust of which ‘porngate’ can be seen as a self reinforcing symptom.

The formal research and publication process cannot keep pace with the developing reality of how people feel.

The other thing I found interesting is that when asked which level of government had the most impact on their daily lives a small majority (44%) thought that local government did compared with 37% for national government.

Those percentages are reversed in the EU as a whole. Given that we normally think of the UK as one of the most centralised countries in Europe that seems odd.

Finally, I loved the last question. Having carefully established that people did not think that local government had enough influence at European level and that most people were not aware of the institutions that were responsible for representing local government in Europe, the survey asked if people would like to know more about the role of the relevant body (the Committee of the Regions which commissioned the research).

The result? In the UK a resounding no from more than 60% of people.

So even though they thought it was important they just didn’t want to know about it. I don’t know why that is in this case (though I could hazard a guess) but it underlines the need to try and go beyond purely factual questions: what do people know, what do they do, what services do they use and get to questions about what people want, what they care about and what they’re interested in.

So while the Eurobarometer research gives us a lot of valuable data on public trust, it also allows us to draw out the following lessons:

  • Statistics by themselves don’t tell us much about whether things matter or not
  • The world sometimes changes too rapidly for rigorous formal research to capture it accurately
  • We sometimes need to go beyond quantifiable facts and deal with values, priorities and interests

All much easier said than done of course, but there are some really interesting examples of local authorities finding innovative ways to respond to just these sorts of insights. It’s something LGiU is really interested in and the subject of one of our upcoming research projects, so if you have any good examples do let us know.

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