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4 reasons why people don’t trust their government anymore (and how to restore it).

Grip on trust

27 januari 2021


You don’t have to take my word for it. Extensive research shows that the level of trust between people and their governments is declining year after year. Respected survey institutes such as the Edelman Trust Barometer and the open-source data platform from Oxford ‘Our World in Data’, show that trust is declining steadily the last decade.

Trust is the most important aspect in every possible relationship, but we hardly know what influences it. This in itself is strange because there is a lot of knowledge available how it works. We simply do not apply it. We take trust for granted. There is not a single governing body that actually has increasing trust as an active item on their list of objectives or goals. Sad, because what makes you lose trust are the same things that make you earn it.

In every relationship, 4 keys influence the quality of the relationship:

1.   Behavioural consistency

2.   Competence

3.   Respect

4.   Shared Cause


1. Behavioural consistency

Do what you say. When there is too much space between what you say and what you do, others don’t trust you.

Politicians suffer chronically from lapse of memory. Promises made on Monday are forgotten on Wednesday. Clever reasoning has to entice the audience to forget everything that was said and follow new insights. Only to change it again when it suits better on a different day.

We also encounter this in dealing with government: some rules apply for some people more than for others: When you have enough money, lawyers or perseverance, rules apply differently for you than for others. People do not understand this and trust in words grows less and less.

Solution: Make words matter. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep, and when you have to: communicate timely. Not knowing or understanding why you don’t do what you promised drives people crazy.

2. Competence

Competence in this sense means: understanding the information and having the knowledge and experience that is needed to make things run smoothly.

Our current society has become extremely complex and complicated. Nobody truly understands it anymore. There are so many laws, bylaws, rules, regulations, national as well as local. Everything is intertwined, and if one issue is resolved, a new one pop’s up as a result of the solution of the first challenge. Policy-makers, civil servants, lawyers and citizens, we all simply go through the motions. Nobody is able to create a better situation tomorrow. Most people at the top of the food chain actually don’t mind. This is it. This is what they do for a living. But a lot of citizens have let go. They simply can’t keep up anymore. They do not perceive the government as a competent body, or organization anymore.

Solution: Simplify our society. Create a type of organization where most of us are able to understand what is what. Start small and make understandability a prerequisite for everything government does.

3. Respect

Politicians stand in plain view for everyone to see. What you say, your choice of words, your behavior, they all matter. Aggressive behavior in politics or civil service creates a huge rift in society and government. When a citizen does not understand a rule or can’t find out how some regulations work, red tape or punishment is a fast route to distrust.

Solution: Treat others with respect. Talk to each other like you talk to your partner's grandma. Say please and thank you. People that have a different view still have to work together. Only when you treat others with respect you will actually create momentum and achieve something.

4. Shared Cause

Citizens often wonder whether the government is there to help them with their life, or if government is there just for people to get a career in politics. Too much red tape, government mistakes denied or swept under a rug, different rules for different people. It all creates confusion, distance and distrust. 

Solution: The 3 reasons mentioned above are aspects that influence trust on an individual level. Trust is a two-way street. The level of trust someone has in you is not the same as the level of trust you have for that person. However, there is a 4th aspect that increases trust between two parties: a shared cause. When two parties want the same thing and they know it from each other, it creates a strong and powerful bond. Imagine a government department with an articulated mission that goes like this: “Working together towards a nicer society for all, with less red tape and if you don’t understand it, we’ll be happy to explain it again.” This resonates with citizens as well as with politicians and civil servants. The important part here is again: the organization has to enable everyone to actually live up to the words.  


The 4 reasons why trust is broken are the same with which it can be restored again. Trust can be restored when we have enough knowledge to understand what’s going on when we experience that words matter and we relate to each other with respect. Trust takes time to grow, apply the 4 keys, stay in there and it will happen. Start small with things you can control and influence. Trust will grow when you want it to.

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