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Tech & Digitalisation

Trust in Government: Data, Services and Cover-Ups

Paper7th February 2022

Non-partisan research has shown that trust in government has been gradually declining over the past five decades yet trust in its institutions, and its role in forging partnerships with the private and public sectors to deliver change, are essential.To assess that trust in government and related institutions today, we looked at the following measures:

  • The individual’s trust in government agencies and public bodies when it comes to sharing of personal data.

  • The link between digitalisation of services and trust.

  • The extent to which the pandemic has affected trust in government bodies and systems.

In analysing the data, we have also highlighted how these measures differ between countries with varying levels of political freedom, and how demographics, in particular age, play their part when it comes to trust in digital government services.As our findings in this chapter show, there’s healthy acceptance of personal data being collected to deliver a range of services and security, although that trust breaks down when it comes to government keeping data safe generally. But by making digital public services work more effectively, policymakers have an opportunity to improve confidence and trust, another highlight of our findings. This is particularly critical in the midst of a pandemic, when we consider the high levels of dissatisfaction over government spending on this issue and how it can exacerbate the problem of trust in public institutions.

Chapter 1

Trust Is Low, but Individual Data Safer With Government Agencies Than With Big Tech

Driven by real and perceived worries over privacy and security, citizens around the world are concerned about how their personal data is stored and used. According to research company Eurobarometer, 61 per cent of Europeans are concerned about their online personal information not being kept secure by public authorities. This perception may be rooted in reality: according to the eGovernment Benchmark 2021, which covers European countries, none of the government websites analysed passed the eGovernment Benchmark security criteria. When it comes to transparency, it is important for users to be given comprehensive details on when, whether and by whom their personal data will be used – and to what ends.

In analysing the results from across our 26 surveyed countries, it is clear that trust is generally low, with just under a third of respondents trusting government with their personal data. Despite this, government agencies appear to hold more legitimacy in this area than big tech firms (defined here as social-media platforms and online search engines). Big tech gained the trust of just over one-in-ten survey respondents.

Figure 1

Respondents trust hospital and banks over government agencies to keep their personal data safe, although big tech firms score the lowest on this issue

Trust levels do vary among generations, with younger respondents tending to trust big tech with their personal data more than older generations, while the trend is reversed when it comes to “traditional institutions” such as hospitals and government agencies, which are trusted more by respondents aged over 45. Low trust generally may be linked to negative media stories surrounding the big tech firms, such as the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal in the aftermath of Brexit and the US presidential election in 2016. Our survey was conducted before the release of the “Facebook Papers” that showed how the platform’s own internal research highlighted its negative impact on the mental health of some users. 

Figure 2

Young respondents are less likely than their senior counterparts to trust traditional institutions with their personal data, but more likely to trust big tech

Chapter 2

More Digitalisation, More Inclination to Trust

Survey data from several countries have shown that trust levels tend to be associated with greater digitalisation of public services. Spain, for instance, comes second after Estonia in the evolution of digital public services, according to the Digital Economy and Society Index 2020, while the UN’s E-Government Survey placed Denmark at the very top of its rating from a total of 193 countries in the same year. Significantly, our survey revealed that 50 per cent of Danish citizens trust their national government agencies with personal data, a figure that is comparable to Spain (48 per cent) and is significantly higher than in Great Britain (35 per cent), for example, or Germany (33 per cent), France (23 per cent) or Poland (14 per cent).

In Denmark, the government has said that trust has been a significant facilitating factor in the digitalisation of public institutions. But while citizens increasingly expect government to act proactively by delivering services pre-emptively without the necessity to fill out applications and forms, many are falling short of delivering proactive digital government services. According to the OECD Digital Government Index, the scores for proactiveness (i.e., offering services before people realise they need them) are among the lowest of all the six dimensions of digital government that were analysed. Other analysis has confirmed that delivery of effective digital public services is critical to developing trust: research in 2019 showed that citizens who were satisfied with a public service were nine times “more likely to trust the government overall than those who were not.” In this, Austria provides an example of good practice. Here, the government has linked data and services together to create a “no-stop shop” where citizens are directed to useful services without specifically having to apply for them. 

Political Freedom Does Not Equate to More Trust

When considering different political landscapes (as defined by Freedom House), it is notable that lack of trust in government agencies is remarkably similar, signalling the universal nature of the problem.

Figure 3

Low levels of trust in government agencies to protect personal data are remarkably similar regardless of the political freedoms enjoyed by a country

Still, “free” countries need to harness political will much more proactively to reap the benefits of technological applications, whether open data portals that facilitate access to useful public-sector information, application programming interfaces enabling greater integration of services and platforms, or user-centric services allowing citizens to get involved in local or national decision-making.

Chapter 3

Covid-19 Has Exacerbated the Problem of Trust

The global pandemic has highlighted the problem of trust in government. From several countries listed in the question below, the data reveal significant numbers of respondents who believe their own government tried to hide the origins of the virus. For example, the French were four times more likely than the average (across all surveyed countries) to believe that the French government had covered up the origins of Covid-19.

Figure 4

Respondents in France, India and the US show high levels of mistrust in their own government when it comes to telling the truth about Covid-19’s origins

Nevertheless, Citizens Recognise the Benefits of Digital Services

While citizens have low levels of trust in government when it comes to their personal data, they nevertheless recognise the practical reasons for its collection and use in order to deliver services.

Figure 5

Acceptance of personal data being collected to deliver services and security is healthy, despite low levels of trust in government to keep that data safe

In comparing the 58 per cent of respondents who find it acceptable for their personal data to be collected in order for a Covid passport to be issued to the 32 per cent who trust government agencies with their personal data, one important distinction becomes apparent. Citizens are more likely to trust in the safe delivery of specific digital government services, particularly related to health or security, than place their trust in government generally. This would also explain higher levels of trust in public-facing institutions, such as hospitals. With data increasingly being placed at the heart of health-care delivery, the use of technology to help identify disease, drive research into medical conditions such as cancer, and help protect the most vulnerable during a pandemic should be advanced and promoted by government.

This picture is the same across most countries, although degrees of trust in the two measures vary. For example, only 14 per cent of Polish respondents trust national government agencies with their personal data yet 43 per cent are accepting of their personal data being used for a Covid passport. In Mexico, the gap between these two measures increased to a significant 45 percentage points. In Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, on the other hand, the gap between the two measures is much smaller.

Figure 6

In every country (excluding Russia), a gap exists between support for the use of personal data for Covid passports versus overall trust in government agencies

Figure 7

Dissatisfaction with government spending on the pandemic is high, but the picture varies with respondents dividing over whether it is too much or too little

Figure 8

What does this mean for the funding of public services? Governments looking at this data may see no clear route: as shown above, in many countries there is a high level of dissatisfaction with the level of government spending, but little consensus as to whether governments are spending too much or too little. Beyond perceptions of spending among their domestic populations, governments are also beginning to run up against the limits of their borrowing capabilities.

Overall dissatisfaction differs wildly from just 22 per cent in Sweden to a whopping 71 per cent in Kenya, but what is clear is that digital technologies could be playing a greater part in the cost-effective scale-up of public services, whether in developed or emerging markets. In the UK, the pandemic resulted in the acceleration of “Government as a Platform” at minimal cost. For instance, on a single day in March 2020, two million SMS messages were sent using GOV.UK Notify, compared to a daily average of 150,000 before the pandemic. The Health Data Research Innovation Gateway, meanwhile, linked relevant genomic, testing, economic, demographic and opinion data sets across institutions in response to Covid-19, providing regular updates to SAGE and helping to save lives.

Our findings point to a healthy level of acceptance among citizens when it comes to personal data collection for the delivery of specific digital services and in response to situations such as the pandemic. But much more needs to be done to increase levels of trust in digital government generally, while the opportunities are clear for technology to deliver integrated, proactive services and to support health care.

Editor's Note: Some data in charts and text may vary slightly due to rounding. Participants for the survey were selected from an online panel, which should be taken into account in responses to questions about online activities, particularly in countries with low levels of internet access. More information about the research and results can be found here.

Read all papers in The TBI Globalism Study:

  1. The TBI Globalism Study: Foreword by Tony Blair

  2. The TBI Globalism Study: How Big Is the Tech Trust Gap?

  3. Trust in Technology: AI, Freedoms and Harms

  4. Trust in Government: Data, Services and Cover-Ups (current page)

  5. Trust in the International Order: Collaboration and Cyberattacks

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