In this article, Dr Hannah Bunting, lecturer in Quantitative British Politics at the University of Exeter, outlines the core principles of trust, applying them to the context of local governance and exploring the implications they hold. These insights are based on her research published in the Handbook on Local and Regional Governance (2023). Building on this further, Dr Greg Stride adds some additional insights from the LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre’s recent work.
The Handbook on Local and Regional Governance research was enabled by the ESRC-funded TrustGov project at the University of Southampton with Prof. Will Jennings as Principal Investigator and Prof Gerry Stoker as Co-Investigator. The TrustGov project tackled important questions on political trust in countries across the world 2019-2023.
What do we mean by trust?
Trust in itself is difficult to define because it’s not something we can hold in our hands or see with our eyes – it’s not directly observable. Being trusting is also different from being trusted, which is separate from being trustworthy. For this reason, political science favours a conceptualisation of trust with three elements: A trusts B to do X. The ‘A’ in this simple equation is usually a citizen, the ‘B’ is a government or politician, and ‘to do X’ is the preferred outcome of a task that B should do (or is at least perceived to be responsible for). Some scholars like to add a fourth element to this, which is ‘without oversight or monitoring’.
Now, we can establish that trust is believing a government will perform a function that results in something you want, even when no one is watching. For instance, you might trust a government to provide you with a state pension while not monitoring where your National Insurance contributions are being spent. Linguistically, trust is akin to ‘confidence’ or ‘faith’.
In a democracy, politicians and government bodies act on our behalf to fulfil the social contract – provide the goods, services and freedoms expected by citizens in return for those citizens’ approval of and participation in institutions. Really, the only oversight is by the media or when their records are up for scrutiny at an election. Therefore, trust is the foundation of politics. We elect representatives and trust they will meet our needs. Another important distinction is what we call diffuse trust, i.e. being generally trusting of political institutions and specific trust that can be held (or not) for particular politicians. To illustrate this, we find that a lot of people believe in democracy yet don’t trust political parties.
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.
Is local government more trusted?
Bigger is not always better. When decision-making is localised and on a smaller scale, it is easier for local people’s needs to be met, for citizens to feel close to their representatives, and for transparent communication. This is one theory as to why local governments could (and perhaps should) enjoy higher levels of trust than their national counterparts. In our analysis, this is the theory that was most supported. Across Europe, 60% of the time local government was more trusted than national government. In the UK, this translated to 20% higher levels of trust for local councils than parliament.
More research is needed to really drill down into why this is the case. It might be because local politics is less party political; while of course, these ideological rivalries exist at the local level, there is a greater sense of collaboration across parties to serve local needs, which is in contrast to the portrayal of combative national politics.
Media coverage could also play its part. The tone and content of political news differ between levels of government, as does the frequency of coverage. If trust is easier without oversight, parliament is much more closely scrutinised than a typical local council. Moreover, it might be because most people experience government participate in that social contract through their local channels. If we want our democracy to provide education, we apply for school places via our council; if we want the state to ensure free and fair elections, these are administered locally. When people attribute success in these areas, they may do so locally rather than nationally. In tandem, they might direct any blame or failures straight at parliament.
How can trust in local government be improved?
One finding from our analysis was that not all regions in the world exhibit higher trust in local government. Looking at where does and comparing that with where doesn’t can indicate the qualities people seek in a trustworthy local authority. One trend we identified was that smaller municipalities generally enjoyed higher trust. Therefore, keeping politics as local as possible might bring improvements. Another differentiation was in the power of local governments. Overall, those with more power had less of a trust advantage – when the difference between national and local governments is not as pronounced, neither were the levels of trust. As we discuss greater devolution in the UK, this is an important factor to keep in mind.
Yet, generally speaking, citizens trust governments of all levels that are competent to deliver services, that are transparent and benevolent in their decision-making, and that act with honesty and integrity. Keeping these core values and ensuring your citizens see them is almost guaranteed to improve trust.
The LGIU view: What should we take away from this?
This research is really important for LGIU, as it is for local government across the world. It provides empirical weight for a few of our most important beliefs about local government and localism but also demonstrates a few of the challenges that we will have to consider if we want to increase trust and improve governance.
The research supports our understanding of the importance of keeping politics and service delivery close to local people, as Hannah says, in order to ensure that citizens’ needs can be met. It is heartening to see that the initial research Hannah and others have done on this topic suggests that this is at least one of the possible reasons why citizens may trust local governments more: because local governments meet the needs of local people.
On the other hand, this research posits a few challenges local governments may have to face in the future. As mentioned above, it may be that when local government becomes more powerful their trust advantage is reduced, potentially compounded by more rigorous and negative media scrutiny. However, this is not a reason to avoid increasing the power of local government, just to understand that with increased power comes greater scrutiny and the potential for local politics to be perceived in the negative ways that citizens already think about national politics.
As our polling with Ipsos demonstrated earlier this year, even though local councils are more trusted than the UK government, they are still only trusted by about half of respondents. There is work to be done on improving trust, but the evidence suggests that localism is one of the key places to start.
The other aspect of trust not yet mentioned is intergovernmental trust between local and central governments. In the equation Hannah used above, how do we know that central governments trust local governments to do their job or vice versa? Our state of local government finance work in England suggests that local government officials have a very low level of confidence in central government, only 8% of our respondents were confident that central government would consider local government in wider policy decisions. This is a critically low level of trust and must be addressed to improve service delivery and cross-governmental cooperation.
Check out our recent think piece from Cllr Baggy Shanker, Leader of Derby City Council, reflecting on the deterioration of central and local government relationship and the complexity this adds to the sector’s ability to succeed.
If public trust is the foundation of politics, then local government is building on a strong foundation. But there is still significant room for improvement and challenges facing the local government sector’s capacity to ensure public trust as we move forward.