Does trust in Government = trust in democracy?

scott-miller-oct-2017-sScott Miller
Chief executive
Volunteering NZ

Trust. It’s a fundamental human value. As a society, it allows us to grow, particularly when there is complexity and alternative facts abound.

Trust. It’s also a fundamental democratic value. As a power accord, citizens bestow trust on governments to function, trade to occur and communities to flourish.

Yet, how much do you trust the government? Businesses? NGOs? What are your attitudes towards government? What do you believe government’s attitudes are towards you?

The Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multinational initiative of national governments and civil society representatives recently convened a meeting of leaders from high-income nations at a two-day summit at The Hague. The purpose of this meeting: to explore the issue of citizens’ diminishing trust in governments, and more importantly, to consider what can be done to repair trust in governments.

But first, why is Trust important?
Trust gives people hope that their role as a citizen in a democracy has meaning. Meaning to ensure that we, as citizens, retain our sovereignty to individual and collective rights, while living in just and liberal societies.

Trust in institutions is important for the success of many government policies, programmes and regulations that depend on cooperation and compliance of citizens.

The OECD finds only 43% of citizens trust their government. And what’s worse, trust is declining!

And the role of the Open Government Partnership?
OGP is an international multi-stakeholder initiative whereby countries voluntarily commit to creating greater transparency for the benefit of their citizens. Countries declare their commitment to:

  • Increase the availability of information about governmental activities
  • Support civic participation
  • Implement the highest standards of professional integrity
  • Increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability.

One of the key mechanisms of the OGP is each country’s National Action Plan (NAP), which includes specific reforms to promote transparency, accountability and public participation. The New Zealand OGP NAP is being led by the State Services Commission, with support of other government agencies, and is signed off by cabinet. It is an important accord that has multiple possibilities and opportunities for New Zealanders to make further enhancements to our democracy, and our society.

The OGP platform can be used to build trust with governments, civil society and citizens working together to identify and credibly respond to the most pressing problems faced by citizens, using open government approaches.

But New Zealand already operates as open democracy, with little corruption, so what’s the point?

Most literature on the relationship between open government and trust note that open government practices per se do not create trust. Further, key tenets of trust – transparency and citizen participation are necessary but not sufficient principles to build trust (Bouckaert, 2012). Therefore, and according to the OECD, trust in government requires focussing on people’s attitudes toward policies and the actual outcomes of policies (OECD, 2017)

Ok, so what is the Government doing to improve attitudes and outcomes?

New Zealand is currently mid-way through its second two-yearly OGP NAP. There are seven commitments, which include opening the budget process, improving official information practices, improving access to legislation etc. Possibly most importantly, there are also commitments to tracking progress and outcomes of open government data releases and on-going engagement for OGP.

And how are we going?

Well, our first NAP (2014-2016) was not that flash according to NZ’s Independent Reporting Monitor.

“The government’s process falls short of OGP’s co-creation guidelines, the commitments lacked clear activities for implementation, and the gains were marginal.”

However, there appears to be some improvement in our current NAP as NZ settles into the level of engagement and work expected from participating countries. The SSC states in our current mid-term (2017) self-assessment that “we are well on track with delivery”. Exciting stuff!

And what about the change of Government?

A new Government means new opportunities to ensure transparency, accountability and participation initiatives become more meaningful and responsive to citizens’ needs and demonstrate results. Let’s hope Ministers Curran and Little follow through with efforts to “review the Official Information Act and previous recommendations from the Law Commission and the Ombudsman and take a policy to Cabinet”.

So how can I get involved?

Trust is a two-way process, and this ultimately frames the partnership element of OGP: as individual citizens and collectively through NGOs and business, we need to take responsibility for our role in building trust between government and citizens.

We need to be able to express our opinions, shape public policies and hold government to account. Our expectations need to remain high and our commitment to participation, strong(er). Only then will we ensure that our representational democracy also becomes a participatory democracy.

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Further reading:

The author attended the meeting at The Hague from 23-24 October 2017 courtesy of the Government of the Netherlands and the Open Government Partnership Support Unit. To read more about the outcomes of this meeting, click this link.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network.

ComVoices is a Wellington-based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. Click here for our website: