Rebuilding trust should be a top priority for leaders

Sir Michael Barber
Oct 16 · 5 min read

The dictionary definition of trust is “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.”

These are the kind of words that it would be good to see people associating with their governments. As taxpayers, citizens should feel they can trust the government to spend their money wisely. They should believe in the capability of those responsible for ensuring that policies directly benefit their daily lives. But all too often, sadly, they do not.


Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed a sustained loss of trust in major institutions — business, churches, even charities, as well as governments. Too many people around the world have come to expect their governments to let them down. As a result, there is a growing and deep-rooted cynicism — “they are in it for themselves”, “they are all the same”, “they don’t care”, “they don’t deliver”, “they only make promises to get elected”.

Loss of trust in one government is obviously a problem for that particular government. But when the loss of trust is not just in one government but in governments in general; and not just in government but in democracy; then there is a risk of cynicism leading to populism. We can see the effects of that all over the world.


In this context, it has never been more important for governments to deliver for their citizens. And that is not just about delivering policies and services. It’s about delivering on promises.

Easier said than done? Of course. But there are some key principles that leaders can bear in mind when grappling with this global challenge:

  1. Make trust a goal

Governments needs to see the delivery of improved trust as a goal in its own right.

Firstly, there needs to be acceptance that this is a real and pressing issue that needs addressing. Secondly, a commitment to setting a clear and measurable plan to improve people’s trust in government. It can feel abstract, but it needs to be viewed liked any other government priority.

In conversations with leaders around the world, the dialogue is as much about credibility, transparency and accountability as it is about healthcare policies, education reform or crime statistics. The discussion is about more than delivering; it is also about the quality of communication and striving for a rich and open dialogue with citizens about the future.

In our ‘Delivery in uncertainty publication, we look at a number of governments who understand the importance of this challenge.

For example, in Peru, the Government set up an Office for Institutional Integrity, specifically to improve trust in the government. By focussing on the perception of police corruption like any other delivery challenge, the team successfully managed to move the numbers on a key issue affecting citizen trust in public officials. Although as everyone in Peru’s government understands, this is just one step in the necessary direction.

2. Put citizens at the centre

Governments need to engage citizens in proper dialogue about what they are doing and why. This means testing, prototyping, and designing user-centric public services, but also demonstrating to the wider electorate the positive impact of successful policies — and speaking plainly about those that are not succeeding.

It involves consulting actively with people about what a policy should be and how it might work. In some aspects of public service, such as health and education, it also requires working through what the relationship should be between the service and the user, and how the user can contribute. It means explaining the values on which policy is based and, where tough decisions are needed, explaining why. Above all, it means levelling with people about the challenges and opportunities ahead. All of which means remembering that a conversation is a two-way process.

In New South Wales in Australia, the Premier included ‘Improving Government Services’ as one of the twelve priorities for the administration, alongside more traditional policy ambitions. As part of this, there was a public commitment to improving citizen satisfaction levels in a transparent and measurable way, including an annual survey capturing citizen feedback on 23 different government services.

3. Remember whose money you’re spending

Governments around the world spend large sums of money. That money can be spent wisely or it can be wasted. The former demands good policy design, clear goals, effective implementation and good data so that problems are identified early and can be solved. Where innovation is attempted, there is clearly risk — governments should be honest about that at the outset and be ready to admit it when something hasn’t worked. This is easier said than done but essential to building trust.

Citizens deserve to know that every dollar of their taxes is delivering the most value possible. Practically, this means aligning public spending to outcomes for citizens, tracking the return on investment, and reporting the results to taxpayers. It also means moving on from just discussing inputs such as class sizes or numbers of doctors and nurses, to a conversation about what outcomes citizens should expect from the money spent.

In the UK, the Treasury has published a Public Value Framework and begun to use it in partnership with other departments to improve the delivery of public services and their accountability. It enables public servants to define and assess how public money is translated into real results for citizens, not just in the short-term but in the longer term too. Already it is resulting in a more sophisticated debate inside government and beyond Whitehall, about what value really means.


Building trust is never easy and takes time. It can appear intractable. But old insights still apply; in the end, it is not just about what you do but how you do it. Not just about the inputs but also about the outcomes. Not just about the quality of the service but about the strength of the relationships between service, users and citizens.

The fundamental values of delivery and effective government remain universal more than ever in a changing and challenging world.

Sir Michael Barber

Written by

Founder and Chairman at Delivery Associates and Chair of the Office for Students . Author, How to Run a Government, (published by Penguin 26 March 2015).

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