05 February 2015

Some recent surveys have revisited public trust in government. Edelman’s trust barometer, for example, shows trust in government has increased since the financial crisis, and is higher than the media and lower than in business and NGOs. But what about trust in the Civil Service? Gavin Freeguard investigates. Click on the images to enlarge.

According to Ipsos MORI polling, 55% of people trust civil servants to tell the truth – less than 20% trust politicians to do so.

In the latest edition of Ipsos MORI’s Veracity Index (published in January 2015, fieldwork December 2014), 55% of people said they trusted civil servants to tell the truth. This is considerably higher than the 19% score for government ministers and the 16% score for politicians generally.

Net Trust - Ipsos-MORI poll data

With 38% of people not trusting civil servants to tell the truth, the Civil Service has a net trust score of 16%. Although this puts it in the top half of the table – and way ahead of government ministers (-57%) and politicians generally (-64%) – the Civil Service lags behind the top profession (doctors 81%) and even behind the ordinary man/woman in the street (32%).

Ipsos MORI figures suggest trust in civil servants has increased dramatically since the early 1980s and late 1990s – trust in politicians has fallen since the mid-2000s.

Trust over time - Ipsos-MORI Veracity Index
Nevertheless, trust in civil servants has increased over time: it has more than doubled from the 25% of the first poll in 1983, with particularly noticeable increases between 1997 and 1999 (36% to 47%) and since 2009 (44% to 55%).

Meanwhile, politicians are on similarly low levels to 1983. However:

  • there was a jump of 11% for government ministers and 8% for politicians generally between 1997 and 1999
  • there was an 8% drop for each between 2008 and 2009 as the expenses scandal played out
  • more people now trust government ministers than politicians generally, a reversal of the situation in 1983.

Why has trust in civil servants increased so much? Writing on the IfG blog in 2013, Ipsos MORI’s Bobby Duffy suggested, that, although there was no convincing explanation, there might be three plausible points to be made:

  • A contrast effect with politicians – ‘high trust in civil servants could be the obverse of low trust in political groups’
  • Civil servants ‘became associated with the optimism around public services in the late 1990s and early 2000s’
  • The broader cultural context – Yes, Minister’s ‘manipulative mandarins’ being superseded by The Thick of It’s more ‘neutral, if sometimes inept, servants, with advisers and communications experts pulling the strings’.

However, YouGov figures suggest trust in senior civil servants is almost as low as for politicians – around 20%.

Trust to tell the truth - YouGov trust tracker

However, YouGov’s most recent trust tracker to include ‘senior civil servants in Whitehall’ (December 2012) put them around the same level as politicians from the three main parties. 23% of those asked said they would trust senior civil servants in Whitehall to tell the truth. Doctors (84%) and teachers (76%) lead the way, as in the Ipsos MORI figures; likewise, estate agents (13%) and journalists (17% mid-market, 10% tabloid) feature towards the bottom.

Why do civil servants score differently between these surveys? One reason might be the different wording. ‘Civil servant’ might conjure up a very different, and more positive, image than ‘senior civil servants in Whitehall’ whose proximity in geographical, power and reputation terms to the increasingly pejorative 'Westminster' could be a factor.

Interestingly, more people trust their local MP than any other type of politician (33%). However, that’s still not great, and as Philip Cowley has pointed out, the general picture is more complicated – ‘If they want love, politicians should get a spaniel.’

Nonetheless, confidence in the Civil Service in the UK is comparable to other G8 countries.

Confidence in the Civil Service - World Values Survey

46% of people had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the Civil Service in the UK, not far behind the leaders Canada (55%) and some way clear of Germany (31%). (At least in the 2005-2009 wave of the World Values Survey – the UK is not included in the most recent wave.)

This survey is asking about confidence – the other surveys we’ve looked at examined trust (and specifically, trust to tell the truth). This illustrates one possible drawback with asking about concepts such as confidence and trust – they mean different things to different people. (Others include political partisanship affecting people’s answers.)

Confidence in the Civil Service after the next election may depend on politicians.

Promises and policies - Chart with data on the perception of politicians and their promises from Whitehall Monitor 2014

The result of this May’s general election is uncertain, but whichever party – or parties – end up in government after it, new policies and reforms will need to be implemented. It will be the job of the Civil Service to see those through.

Polling by Populus for the Institute’s Programme for Effective Government suggests that political parties need to be careful they don’t make promises they can’t keep. We found the public would be more likely to vote for a political party that could demonstrate how it would implement its policies in government, but were not confident that parties knew how they would implement them or explain how they would pay for them. Most also thought that political parties in the UK tend not to keep their election promises.

Whatever the truth of those statements, the public perception is damaging. As we approach the general election, politicians will need to be sure they don’t make promises they can’t keep and show how they will implement ones they can. Otherwise, there’s only one likely outcome for politicians: their trust deserts.

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