Part 2: Why Then Don't Citizens Trust Government?
The first part of this paper has established that the decline in trust in the New Zealand government over the past thirty years may not be directly related to government performance, if performance is measured objectively. If government performance is improving, why do increasing numbers of people lack confidence in government? To date, little work has been done in this area in New Zealand.
Some degree of cynicism is healthy, and the alternative of high levels of blind faith in government is probably neither possible nor desirable. However, the consistent decline in trust in a democratically elected government such as that in New Zealand, and the comparable decline in overseas jurisdictions, suggests a worsening trend that requires attention. At the extreme, lack of trust may affect the willingness of the public to pay taxes or to comply with the law. It may affect people's willingness to work for government, with repercussions for the quality of government personnel. All of these factors have important implications for society.
The causes of the decline in trust are probably multiple. They are likely to differ for different citizens depending on such variables as their level of interaction with government, their awareness of government activities and on their ability to understand government's work in a way that goes beyond the things government does that immediately affect them.
In New Zealand, interest in the issue has been fuelled by recent well-publicised cases of scandal in government agencies (for example, the Jeff Chapman case, and payouts to public servants). The goal of restoring trust has been flagged by the 1999 Coalition government as one of its key government goals to guide public sector policy and performance.
This paper draws together some speculative thoughts about possible causes of the decline in trust in government in New Zealand. In particular, the paper outlines some of the causes that have been put forward in the US context, and attempts to apply them to the New Zealand situation. It also develops some uniquely New Zealand factors. The paper concludes with some ideas on what might be done to address the issue of declining confidence in government.
Economic theories are often cited in attempts to capture the possible causes of a decline in trust in government. Theories about the US (in Nye et al. 1997) suggest that economic slowdown may be to blame for the declining trust in government. Governments take the credit when economic performance is strong, and they take the blame when it is weak.
However, timing flaws this theory. The greatest fall in confidence in the US occurred from 1964 to 1974, when economic growth was fastest, and the recession of the early 1980s was accompanied by a rise in confidence in government.
In New Zealand, there has been a steady decline in trust in government over the past thirty years. Conversely, economic performance (as measured by GDP per capita) has generally increased steadily since the 1960s. Moreover, there is a question over the strength of the link between economic growth and people's perceptions of government. Hamilton (1998)'s research in Australia, for example, suggests a weak correlation between a country's income and perceived wellbeing.
The theory does not seem to hold up well in New Zealand. It is also difficult to unravel the influence of economic causes. For example, do people care about overall performance, or is disparity more important?
Global competition (the view that global markets such as cheap Asian labour have led to a depression of wages in advanced countries such as the US) is cited as a possible cause by Nye et al. (1997). Again, the theory appears to be flawed. Trade accounts for only ten percent of the US economy and the slowdown in wages has also occurred in the other 90 percent.
In New Zealand, the theory may have some credence and fears of global competition may be an issue for New Zealanders. The trend towards locating the production of goods in Asia has increased over the past decade. Factory closures, due to the relatively high costs of domestic labour, and stories about cheap production of goods in Asia may have affected public confidence. There may also be a more general fear of being a small country lost in the moves towards a more global world. General lack of confidence about New Zealand's role in the world may spill over into a lack of confidence in government.
While such factors certainly have an effect on people's confidence and security, whether it translates into a mistrust of government is more questionable. It may, however, make restoring trust more difficult.
Speculation about the causes of the decline in confidence in the US government includes allegations that citizens' expectations of what government can and should deliver have increased. Nye et al. (1997) claim that public demands for rights have increased. There used to be basic human rights, about which people were in broad agreement, today people claim a right to everything from a pension to a vacation. Similarly, Haque (1999) suggests that there has been a recent and increasing expansion of people's entitlements or rights, and in particular of individual's social rights to welfare and security.
In New Zealand, expectations are difficult to measure. The first part of this paper has shown that personal freedom has probably increased over the past three decades under legislation such as the Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act. It also shows that spending on health and access to education has improved since the 1960s. It is difficult to know whether people's expectations have increased or changed. Certainly in some areas, such as the entitlement to a free education to tertiary level, have been at the heart of many debates in New Zealand, with a marked shift towards user pays in health and tertiary education. At the same time, however, government spending in these areas has increased in relative terms.
It is difficult to determine what exactly citizens expect from government, both in terms of quantity and quality, and government spending is only part of the issue.
Moreover, there are likely to be differences in the expectations of different generations of New Zealanders. For example, older citizens who grew up under a generous welfare state, may have higher expectations than younger citizens less used to an all-providing government.
For New Zealanders, the critical factor may not be that expectations have increased over time, but that expectations of government performance have changed to reflect an increased awareness of what overseas governments are doing. This in part reflects the greater availability of information about comparable jurisdictions (through media such as the internet). This theory is also likely to contain a degree of 'the grass is always greener', exacerbated by news media coverage (see below).
Expectations may also be bolstered to unrealistic levels by political claims, and in particular by pre-election promises, which are not always met once a party is in government. Failure to meet promises is likely to cause frustration and declining confidence in elected officials.
It seems likely that increased, changed or relative expectations have some effect on people's expectations of government. In turn, whether or not government measures up is likely to impact on levels of trust in government.
Some US authors attribute the lack of trust in government to the absence of a 'unifying cause' to bond society together. Such causes in the past are World War II and the cold war, and also time under skilled and popular leaders. Times of leadership by 'poor leaders' (such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) are correlated with dips in confidence (for instance, after America's involvement in Vietnam and Watergate) (Nye et al., 1997). However, such events fail to explain the duration of the decline in trust since the 1960s.
In New Zealand, detailed time data on trust trends is not available. The best available data (as cited in Part I of this paper) simply shows a constant decline in confidence since the 1970s. Hence, it is not possible to track dips or peaks associated with political events or terms of leadership. However, the general idea about national unity appears to have some plausibility.
While recent years have been free from such dramatic events as a national war effort, there may be something in the 'united country' theory more generally. In times of 'united' causes, that a majority of citizens feel passionate about, along with a strong indication that government is acting in line with this feeling trust in government may be higher. Speculatively, such causes in New Zealand may include times such as the nation's stance against nuclear testing and arguably even sporting achievements.
Conversely, confidence may fall if government is perceived to be doing a good job, but in the wrong areas.
Trust in government may be affected by public perceptions of the integrity of those working in public organisations, including both elected officials and public servants. These perceptions have certainly changed over time in New Zealand. New Zealand was ranked third in the 1999 Corruption Perceptions Index (Transparency International, 1999). However, studies by Perry and Webster (1999) in 1998 found that over 10% of New Zealanders believed that most, or almost all, public officials are engaged in bribe taking or corruption.
Corruption and dishonesty are difficult to measure, and may have increased over recent years. What has certainly increased is media attention to scandal, and a public belief (well founded or otherwise) that politicians have become more corrupt. As Nye et al. (1997) note, the 'dignity' of government has deteriorated in the public's mind, and trust in institutions is closely correlated with the public's perception of ethical behaviour by government. This is intensified by media glare.
In New Zealand, changes to the way in which New Zealand Government runs and reports to the public over the past 15 years have included a focus on accountability and openness of government business to the public. This period, which has seen developments such as the introduction of the Official Information Act and the Privacy Act, has not seen any abatement in the decline in trust in government. In fact this trend has continually worsened. Moreover, some government functions have moved outside of a smaller core government, creating public officials who are not necessarily imbued with the old public service ethos. This has manifested itself in recent scandals involving board decisions, and public servant payouts.
The reasons for this can only be speculative. It is possible that now people have greater access to government information they are aware of things that were previously hidden (such as public early retirement deals, in place of quiet, in-house movements of staff out of difficult situations).
Finally, trust in government may be affected by the source of information to citizens about government. The media, and television in particular, is likely to play a large part in shaping citizens' views about government, about how it works and about how well it is doing.
The press has become an unaccountable part of the political process, with the press and TV news becoming more negative, more journalist-centred, and more focused on conflict than substance (Nye et al., 1997). Television has become the key information link between government and citizen, and is, for many people, their only source of information about government. This factor is likely to have had a significant influence both on what people know about government, and on their views about (and consequently trust in) government. The scale of this influence may adversely affect confidence in government's performance for three reasons.
First, news about government is subject to the interpretation of the reporter. A news story is often generated quickly, and may not be subject to critical analysis of the surrounding facts. The reporter can report some stories in either a negative or a positive light. Economic news, for instance, may be reported as 'sound bites' of short-term 'bad news', or can be placed in a longer-term context, which might well be 'good news'. The way that such stories are presented lies largely in the hands of the reporter, and people often only read the headlines, and not the more in-depth reporting on the 'inside pages'. Moreover, the limited choice of newspapers in New Zealand limits people's access to a range of views.
Second, television news focuses on the graphic and the dramatic. Those stories likely to make headlines are horror stories about horrific events, such as violent crime. For example, much media attention during 1998 in New Zealand focused on several cases of home invasion, including a murder. Public concern was so great that the issue led to a referendum on sentencing for the perpetrators of such crimes. However, the wider picture shows total recorded crime falling by 3% over the year 1998 to 1999.
Third, television news in particular is dominated by the need for instant information, which may preclude a more thorough analysis of the facts. News is provided in snapshots, often without context and often without 'roundness' of views.
Schick (1999) speculates about the role of the media in declining trust, and he cites it (along with education) as a key driver in building credibility and in decreasing mistrust. Both are powerful generators of societal values, and the measure of trust is deep rooted in the structure of prevalent values. When these values favour immediate goals and selfish values, shortsighted choices will prevail.
The role of the media, which has changed news coverage to be more instant and graphic, is likely to have had an effect on the New Zealand public's perceptions of government. When these images are largely negative, focused on personal or scandalous issues, the influence on levels of trust is inevitable.
Whatever the causes, steps are needed to halt, if not reverse, the decline in confidence in the New Zealand government. The means to do this exist at three levels:
Determining the causes is the first step. This will be a combination of academic efforts, international research (such as recent work by the OECD) and work by the government. The 1999 coalition government has already indicated its commitment to working to restore trust in government. This will require undertaking a detailed analysis of the reasons for the decline.
The government can also ensure the quality of its own media releases and the provision of sound information to the public. All political parties can avoid raising the expectations of the public beyond an achievable level in their political (especially pre-election) promises and claims.
Ensuring open government is the next step. Making government more open has been a deliberate move in New Zealand over the past decade. That this has failed to influence the decline in trust in government may be because people know more about what is happening without always understanding why. Filling this information gap is likely to influence trust, and is a role in which government and the media have a responsibility.
In the future, government information may be more freely available through electronic means. Developments in technology (such as government Internet interfaces) permit easy and comprehensive access to government documents to all citizens. While this is likely to expose further examples of 'wrongdoing', it can also promote greater understanding about government and government processes, and provide confidence that public interest in such events is being considered.
An important part of this may be informing citizens about the trade-offs that are involved in political decision-making.
Encouraging citizen participation is a further aspect of open government. The benefits are two-way. Effective government needs popular support and participation. Citizens have more confidence in government if they feel part of the political process (hence, they are more trusting of local than national politicians). Citizens who are involved are likely to have reduced misperceptions and are better able to form their own opinions, independently of the media.
Citizen participation can be enhanced by measures for greater involvement (again, perhaps facilitated in the future by electronic means). Greater involvement has the potential for citizens to have more say in the issues that government addresses. Trust is likely to grow when people believe government is working constructively on the issues that they care about (Berresford, 2000).
Citizens who understand how government works, that it works with limited resources (and in some cases limited influence), and who feel that they are a valued part of democratic processes are likely to be more trusting of their government.