Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland Democracy, devolution and governance, LGIU@40

Are we living in an age of post-trust politics?


Photo by Tara Evans on Unsplash

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. LGIU’s 40th anniversary comes at what feels like a critical juncture for local government. Longstanding challenges such as finance and increased demand on services and infrastructure are butting up against more existential threats to communities like climate change, populism and unregulated, poorly understood technology.

Our LGIU@40 campaign, while utilising our unrivalled experience of working with local government is very much about the future. Identifying three core themes – participation, trust and finance – we have been working extensively with our members and the wider sector on a set of new ideas for how local government could work better in the future. A manifesto – to be published at the end of the year – will provide a blueprint for how we can move from aspiration to action and build the foundations that local government needs to navigate the challenging times we all face.

The latest edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer certainly makes pretty grim reading.

In the UK only 27% of people say they trust government (a seven year low).; 57% of people feel that their interests are not represented in British politics;  and 85% feel that politicians act in a way that undermines people’s trust in government.

These are not isolated findings

Recent research by IPPR showed that four out of five Britons felt that politicians did not understand the lives of ordinary people, only six percent felt voters were the key influence on political decisions and a majority of people living in deprived areas and of young adults felt that British democracy did not serve their interests well.

This article is part of our LGIU@40 work looking at the future of local government – examining key questions about trust, democratic engagement and sustainable finance. Explore our collection on trust.

Global trust levels

Some of the best and most depressing research in this area is by Yascha Mounck and Roberto Foa at Harvard which shows declining faith in democracy across advanced economies. Less than one third of Americans born after 1980, for example, believe it’s “essential” to live in a democracy.

Nearly a half of young Americans think that a strong leader who does not have to bother with elections would be a good thing.

This is part of a much broader collapse of trust in institutions encompassing politics and the media, banks, large corporations. This collapse in trust has many sources. Some are general: the changing nature of employment in post industrial economies; the differential effects of globalisation; rapid population changes in some communities. Some are more specific such as the financial crisis of 2008 or in the UK the MP’s expenses scandal of 2009, or “Partygate”. All feed this sense that decision making elites are detached from, and no longer represent the interests of, the people they are meant to serve.

So people who feel let down and left behind by globalisation, or contemporary culture, or capitalism, or the way in which their society is changing are rejecting politics as usual.

Hence the 73% of people in the UK who told the Edelman survey that dealing with the country’s problems required “new thinking, ideas and approaches:”

We can see though that trust in government isn’t universally low. In other countries where LGIU operates, such as Australia or the Republic of Ireland, trust as measured by the OECD, is much higher, though still just half of Australians trust in government. Clearly there are lessons to be learned.

Local government

What of local government? Well, the good news in the UK is that we’re more trusted than central government at 36% (up one from last year). That’s not great, it’s still a minority but it gives us something to work from. The same findings are also true for local government in the United States (another nation suffering from a trust deficit), with trust rising the more local the level of government, in Australia and in fact in most countries. In Norway, Finland and Ireland – which enjoy very high trust of central government, local government is less trusted (though more trusted than in the UK)

As part of our LGIU@40 campaign, we’ve brought together some of LGIU’s past work on trust and new pieces from our members and leading academics. We looks at why trust is so important to good governance and to public service delivery, examines the consequences of a “trust deficit” and consider how trust can be rebuilt.

Explore the new LGIU@40 trust collection

Local government and local people: creating a space for mutual trust

Local government has a dual function. It is a democratic body that gives citizens and communities a voice and a way to exercise political agency to shape the places they live in. It is also the institution responsible for the commissioning and delivery of state public services (or some of them) at a local level. Currently, both these functions of local government are under severe pressure and the pressures on the democratic function of local government make it harder, not easier, to scale up the sorts of innovation needed to relieve the pressures on public services.

The sort of public service reform we need in order to respond to both the fiscal pressures on local government and the rise in demand on key services requires more interaction between citizens and the state and thus requires trust between citizens and the institutions of local service delivery. Unfortunately, we are currently experiencing a crisis in trust which makes the sort of reform local government needs harder to achieve.

This creates a trust deficit whereby a collapse in trust in local government as a democratic institution makes it harder to achieve the types of reform we need for effective public service provision in the future.

Trust as the vital currency to community cohesion and effective public services

The broad outline of public service reform is clear. We need to move from a system that is geared towards acute intervention to one that is characterised by demand management, prevention, integration of services, multi-agency working and which is co-produced with, and designed around, the needs of service users. That means recognising that the real challenges we face cannot be solved by the state alone – instead they require collaborative engagement from all parts of the public realm: a new relationship between citizen, civil society and (local) state in which each supports the other in contribution to the common good.

But trust is the vital currency in this. Trust between citizens and democratic institutions and trust within and between communities themselves.

Post trust politics matters desperately, not only because it opens the door to irresponsible strains of populism, but because it closes the door to the sort of change we need to see. Transformed, facilitative – more network than institution  – relies on the engagement of its citizens. It relies on trust just when there is less trust than ever to go around.

Unravelling relationships: trust between governments and institutions

If we see trust between citizens and the government at a low point, it’s also worth reflecting on the degree of trust that exists between different layers of government. As part of the LGIU@40 programme we have interviewed more than 60 local government leaders and chief executives; it’s clear that they don’t feel that central government trusts them to get on with the job and that they don’t trust central government to support and enable them.

“Trust in UK government has collapsed completely” said one, in a blunt but not atypical assessment. Contributors to our collection added vital detail, but did not differ in their sometimes stark conclusions.

This matters because it leads to excessive and onerous reporting, and because it inhibits the agile, joined up approaches we need to make innovation stick. It matters because as we continue to face challenges that are global and where solutions are likely to be local, institutions must be able to work together. Across lateral partnerships and within vertical hierarchies.

Rebuilding trust

If this analysis is correct: that local government needs to nurture more citizen participation while simultaneously facing a trust deficit that makes it hard to make that participation happen, then it becomes an urgent priority to begin to encourage participation in a way that reinforces or rebuilds trust. This must be based on genuine conversations about the places we live in, on the engagement of the community in the council’s decision making and on making public institutions the catalyst for civic action.

Explore the LGIU@40 participation collection

The future of local government, democracy and a well-functioning society require us to work on trust together. Our white paper will look at these building blocks as LGIU continues to work with local governments and civic institutions to make trust more robust.


One thought on “Are we living in an age of post-trust politics?

  1. Party politics should be expunged from local government. Parties insist on members voting as they are told on any key issues so democracy in its true sense cannot exist. All elected members should be allowed to vote according to conscience and not be forced to vote blindly for the party line as dictated by their leaders. We need more independently thinking councillors and a committee structure. We also need to restructure the protocols and petty formalities of council procedures. Officers spend too many resources and time on trivial issues. Some have a tickbox mentality in the extreme. There should be no dominant group on any committee.

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