In many parts of the world, trust in governments saw a massive surge in 2020, brought on by COVID-19.1 For the first time in decades, globally, citizens considered their governments to be the most trusted institution, as they looked for guidance during the pandemic. Such trust—and, increasingly, social trust or social capital—is crucial to managing challenging economic and public health issues.2
People’s trust in government tends to grow during times of crisis, as they rely on public institutions to address complex challenges, a phenomenon known as “rallying around the flag.”3 But, while vital, such trust is also fragile and research suggests that large gains in trust are often quickly lost.4 By January 2021, the trust in government had fallen by 8 points globally, showcasing the challenges in sustaining high trust for longer period of time.5
Ultimately, trust in government is founded on citizens’ perceptions of its competence and intent.6
Competence refers to the ability to execute, to follow through on what you say you will do. Traditionally, perceptions of competence were driven by government actions and interactions with constituents such as delivering services or enforcing regulations.7 However, as those government actions have become increasingly digital, governments have struggled to convey the same sense of competence that often comes through in an in-person interaction.
Intent refers to the meaning behind someone’s actions: taking action from a place of genuine empathy and true care for the wants and needs of stakeholders and constituents. Perceptions of government intent have suffered in the transition to the digital age due to a rise in misinformation and disinformation.8 Also, Edelman research suggests that, over the years, rising inequality and economic disillusionment have had an outsized impact on public trust levels.9
As governments accelerate their digital transformation journey post–COVID-19, trust in government systems, data collection and digital services will be critical. However, in many countries, years of political polarisation, rising inequality and a lack of credible information have fractured the credibility of public institutions. If governments fail to make “trust” a core component of the economic revival process, the current uptick in public trust in many countries could be short-lived.
Trust has played an important role in effectively managing the COVID-19 pandemic, as countries with higher levels of social and government trust have typically seen slower virus spread and a lower mortality rate.10 As trust rises, so does confidence in government information generally, enabling a unified response and increased citizen cooperation.11
Since the start of the pandemic, Singapore has focussed on clear and consistent information sharing. The government had an effective communication plan: The members of the COVID task force held daily press conferences, during which they explained the evolving COVID-19 situation and resulting government decisions. The government also leveraged nontraditional communication channels such as WhatsApp and Telegram to debunk misinformation and explain the rationale behind public health policies.12
In Taiwan, the country’s Central Epidemic Command Center held daily live-streamed press briefings, published and updated mask stock levels in real time, and created a government hotline to report discrepancies. Citizen “hacktivists” then built apps that allowed the public to interact with this information in a meaningful way. Through this participatory and transparent process, the government dramatically increased citizen trust in the government’s COVID-19 response.13
Less than a week after New Zealand recorded its first COVID-19 case, government officials had shut down the country in an attempt to eliminate the virus. The country closed its borders and instituted a “level four” lockdown, prohibiting people from interacting with anyone outside of their home except for essential services. This early and decisive action was possible only with high levels of citizen trust. By April 2020, 88% of Kiwis said they trusted their government’s handling of the pandemic. 14
South Korea was one of the few countries that contained the pandemic without implementing a widescale economic shutdown. It accomplished this through an aggressive early response, which included ramped-up testing, an innovative contact-tracing approach and robust isolation policies. 15 Key to the country’s ability to avoid a shutdown was its unusually high level of social and governmental trust. 16
Commercial digital services such as online shopping, food delivery and ride-sharing can now be accessed at the push of a button, thus creating expectations among citizens that government services should operate the same way.
This can create a catch-22 for governments. To retain citizens’ trust, they need to digitise services. But effectively digitising services likely requires public trust. Moving government services to the digital domain requires not only that citizens enjoy the experience—they must also believe their sensitive data is being properly used and safeguarded. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many countries struggled to implement digital contact-tracing solutions due to citizen pushback. 17
As with issues of mis/disinformation, governments are finding innovative ways to address this problem to build confidence in government—and its digital systems.
Data trusts and data-sharing infrastructure, such as Estonia’s X-tee platform, build public trust by facilitating the secure and authenticated exchange of data. Estonian public sector organisations are required to use the heavily regulated X-tee tool to access or share data. This platform improves cohesion across government agencies and bolsters citizen confidence. 18 The UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport recently invested £700,000 in data trusts—legal structures that ensure proper stewardship of data. Through this structure, a data-collecting organisation designates an independent trustee who is responsible for how the data is shared and used. The trustee has both the freedom to use the data to its full potential and the liability of protecting it from misuse. 19
Other countries have increased trust by allowing citizens to control and revoke personal data access. Aadhaar, India’s biometric-based digital identification system requires fingerprints and iris images in addition to more routine data such as name, birthdate, sex and address. But the system has added another layer of privacy, allowing citizens to use a randomly generated 16-digit number (virtual ID), which is mapped to the Aadhaar number, as a stand-in for the ID. Users can change their virtual ID number as easily as a computer password and it cannot be tracked across databases. 20 In Estonia, citizens and residents can monitor how the government has used their personal data. Data usage is recorded in time-stamped, tamper-proof digital logs, which users can monitor for suspicious activity. 21
While higher trust in government played an important role in government response to the pandemic, governments globally have been struggling with a different kind of pandemic for the past few years—the rapidly rising problem of mis/disinformation. The growth in manipulated information and fake news has fractured social capital in some countries and increased distrust in government institutions, processes and systems. 22
Manipulation of the information environment is nebulous and difficult to pin down. It can be hard to see who is manipulating information and why. Propaganda can look very similar to the content shared by a poorly informed friend, and scammers and spies often use the same tactics. As such, misinformation is a problem that is difficult to define, let alone solve.
But this is the reality in which societies operate today. The “laundering” of misinformation into mainstream discussions via influencers, online forums, or other means can magnify the impact of mis- and disinformation by making them even harder to distinguish from the truth. As was seen in the US Capitol attack in January, the impact of such an environment on public trust can be immense and can manifest in varied ways, including disregarding scientific advice, 23 believing conspiracy theories, 24 and resorting to vandalism and violence. 25 The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report calls it an “infodemic” and reports that trust in all information sources, including traditional media, social media and search engines, is at an all-time low. 26
Governments are addressing misinformation, disinformation and fake news through various initiatives, including developing public awareness, improving transparency, collaborating with social media platforms, and improving sense-and-respond strategies.
In one example of a public awareness campaign, in the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coronavirus page debunks rumours and confirms accurate information surrounding the federal government’s COVID-19 response. 27 Meanwhile Taiwan’s “humour over rumour” initiative fights fire with fire, using memes to combat coronavirus misinformation. Key to the initiative is a speedy response: By responding within two hours in most cases, the government is able to ensure more people see the truth than the conspiracy. A delayed response, they have found, would likely do little good. 28 Australia similarly launched its “stop and consider” advertising campaign to combat election misinformation on social media during its 2019 election cycle. The campaign encouraged voters to carefully cheque the source of any election information they saw or heard. 29
Collaboration between government, communities and social media platforms has also played a role in reducing misinformation. In the United States, California expanded the reach of credible government information by enlisting celebrities to record short public service announcements encouraging citizens to “Stay Home. Save Lives,” and worked closely with social media platforms to distribute these messages. 30
Indonesia’s Information Ministry partnered with tech giant Google and Mafindo, a citizen-led initiative focussed on combating misinformation, to launch a comprehensive media literacy programme that trains the public to spot internet hoaxes and disinformation. 31 Meanwhile, a coalition of governments, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have partnered with social media platforms to fight conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations. The group aims to set common standards and accountability measures for combating misinformation across social media platforms. 32
Some government agencies have focussed on education and toolkits as a reliable—and repeatable—way to stem the flow of misinformation. The US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, for example, released a toolkit to help state and local governments navigate and respond to disinformation. 33 Meanwhile, the United Kingdom updated its public school curriculum to include lessons on how to spot misinformation online. 34 Finland and Australia have undertaken similar efforts, including digital literacy programmes in their national curricula. 35
Other governments have turned to transparency and agility, stopping misinformation in its tracks through short, regular and accurate messaging, delivered directly to the people. In Canada, France and New Zealand, leaders delivered daily or near-daily coronavirus updates to the public, leveraging a variety of platforms, including social media. Meanwhile, Finland has worked with social media influencers to provide clear and reliable information to younger audiences. 36
Some countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have deployed task forces and special units to address disinformation. Canada’s Critical Election Incident Public Protocol created a five-member council to identify disinformation attempts and quickly notify the public. The task force is led by nonpolitical officials to prevent the perception of campaign interference. 37
Governments are also increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) and othertechnology to fight mis/disinformation. In the United States, the Air Force and US Special Operations Command are developing an AI-powered platform that aims to combat disinformation as quickly as bots can disseminate it. 38 The US Census Bureau used a software algorithm to comb billions of social media posts for misinformation. Using an AI-enabled “smart alerts” feature, the Bureau gets notified when a disinformation post has gained too much traction, thus allowing it to respond swiftly. 39
In the United Kingdom, the government partnered with the University of Cambridge to create a new game called “Go Viral.” The game simulates the spread of false information, challenging players to spread as much false information as possible. The five- to seven-minute game acts as a primer on the most common online manipulation techniques and gives players “the tools they need to discern fact from fiction.” 40
Citizens’ demands are rapidly changing and government customers want interactions to be on par with those they have in the private sector—mobile, innovative and easy to use. As digital and technology trends continue to evolve, a forward-thinking customer experience strategy can improve citizen engagement and put your agency at the forefront of innovation.