Fairness is crucial for trust in government

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With flags hanging upside down all over the country, trust in politics seems to have reached an all-time low. The nitrogen crisis, along with the housing crisis, problems around asylum housing, the settlement of the benefits affair, the Covid-19 crisis and the Groningen earthquake damage, are all major challenges for the government's reputation. But: How much trust do the Dutch really have in their political institutions? And to what extent is that trust or distrust based on the government's performance?

Research by Utrecht University shows that the Dutch are frugal with their trust in political institutions (an average score of six out of 10), and that trust fluctuates with major political developments in the country. If, for example, people are dissatisfied with the lengthy formation process of the government, their trust declines. On the other hand, it can rise if people are satisfied with the state of the economy, for example. The researchers do observe an increasing polarisation in political trust and emphasise that it is up to political leaders to improve the reputation of the government as reliable and fair. Because it is the reliability of the government that is decisive for political trust, says project leader Lisanne de Blok.

Does the government listen to its citizens? Does it weigh all the interests, is it impartial and fair? Does the government follow the rules, is it open about the motivation for specific decisions and above all: does it keep to its promises? If so, there is a good chance that trust will increase,  the researchers say in their research Gefundeerd politiek vertrouwen? (Foundations of political trust? In search of the relationship between government performance and trust in political institutions) commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations

A more nuanced view of political trust

Lisanne de Blok and Lars Brummel of the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG) conducted research among a representative group of 1,750 Dutch citizens and combined this with longitudinal survey data (2008 to 2022). Based on this, they show , in contrast to the worrying tone in the public debate about low political trust, a more nuanced picture of political trust in the Netherlands.

On average, political trust in the Netherlands does not show a declining trend when studied over a longer period. Confidence of the Dutch in political institutions rises and falls like a thermometer with major developments such as an economic crisis or a virus outbreak. Following decreases or increases, trust often returns to a 6 (score on a scale of 0 to 10), which means that on average the Dutch tend to have moderate trust in the country's most important political institutions.

You want people to base their trust on political performance, rather than blindly trust political leaders

Lisanne de Blok

People are just careful with their trust and that is also desirable in a democracy, says Lisanne de Blok. You want people to base their trust on performance, rather than blindly trust political leaders. The reputation of the government has suffered some dents in the past year, so it is logical that confidence is low at the moment.

The report also shows that trust is largely based on the perceived performance of the government, and that this is even more the case for citizens with low levels of trust. The types of performance that are matter for political trust differ per context and individual.

Large differences exist in people’s satisfaction with different policy domains. During the last recession (2008), economic satisfaction strongly declined, and satisfaction with health care rose during the Covid-19 pandemic=In 2022, the Dutch are least satisfied with housing supply, youth care and immigration policy, and most satisfied with safety and social security. However, not all policy domains have the same impact on political trust: trust in the Dutch government is mainly related to economic satisfaction and satisfaction with the welfare state.

Growing polarisation

The researchers do note that the variation in political trust has structurally increased over the past fifteen years: Dutch people differ more in their levels of trust.

We are observing increasing polarisation in political trust,' says Lisanne de Blok, 'a large proportion of Dutch people does have confidence in their political institutions, but there is a growing group who are expressing themselves more and more negatively.

Despite the fact that citizens judge the same institutions, they differ in their level of trust. According to the study, this can partly be explained by the fact that citizens also differ in terms of the types of performance they take into account in their assessment. A policy domain that is considered important by an individual has a greater effect on his/her political trust.

It is important to note, however, that for this report we have focussed on perceptions of government performance, and not so much on the relationship between actual 'objective' government performance and political trust, adds De Blok.

Especially the quality of the decision-making and implementation process is an important source of political trust for everyone, but even more so for distrustful citizens. They base their trust judgement to a much greater extent on their perceptions of whether the government operates transparently, fairly and impartially, for instance. They consider this about four times as important as citizens with relatively high political trust says De Blok.

If the government succeeds in keeping its promises more clearly and acts even more fair and impartial (...) then even distrustful citizens will steadily adjust their trust judgements.

Lisanne de Blok

Process satisfaction important basis for political trust

The researchers conclude in their report that if political trust is to be increased, it is particularly useful to look at the quality of the decision-making and implementation process.

On the one hand, investing in specific policy domains will only make a difference for a part of the population, because not everyone will include youth care in his or her trust judgement, for example. In addition, the basis of political trust will also vary over time, with, for example, economic satisfaction being the most important factor during an economic crisis.

On the other hand, investing in the quality of the process will be beneficial for everyone, but especially for distrustful citizens, because the reliability of the government is a very important source of political trust.

The reliability (fairness, impartiality, openness) of the government is the foundation of trust - even more so than satisfaction with the state of the economy or health care, says Lisanne de Blok. If, for example, the government succeeds in keeping its promises more clearly and acts even  more fair and impartial, and is able to convince citizens of this, then even distrustful citizens will steadily adjust their trust judgements. Investing in process satisfaction therefore also offers an opportunity to combatt the growing polarisation in political trust. There is profit to be made there.

More information and contact

Would you like to know more about this research report? It is available in Dutch: Gefundeerd politiek vertrouwen?

For questions you can also contact the project leader, Lisanne de Blok: e.a.deblok@uu.nl.


Download the report 'Gefundeerd politiek vertrouwen?' (Dutch, pdf, 1,5 MB)