Key takeaways

  • An increasing number of Australians say they feel neutral or untrusting towards their government.
  • Micro and macro drivers of trust, experiences and values, are central to maintaining and growing trust.
  • Rebuilding the bond with citizens is possible when customer experience is taken into focus.

Trust is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Without trust, humans are hesitant to share, participate, collaborate, or believe the information they are provided. Interactions with government often relate to important life moments that are central to our sense of wellbeing — financial, social, mental and physical. Whether citizens are starting university, adopting a child, renewing a visa, or lodging a tax return, they need to have trust in the government organisations they are dealing with in order to feel safe, secure, confident and supported. Government trust matters.

This trusted bond is critically important to maintain. When trust is broken, fear sets in and we no longer feel we are in safe, reliable hands. Rebuilding trust presents a significant challenge; often taking years of continued positive action to restore. If citizens do not trust governments, it becomes harder for government policies to succeed — policies that exist to support the very wellbeing of the citizens they are designed to benefit.

Australians are generally neutral in
their feelings of trust towards government


For government success,
the trust deficit must be addressed

If citizen trust is a key driver for the success of government, current data suggests we are at a crucial time for action. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government around the world fell to record lows in 2018, and although modest increases have been reported in the 2019 study, citizens around the world are struggling to trust that their governments are working in their best interest.

PwC’s Centre for Citizen Research recently surveyed 500 Australians to gauge current levels of trust in government (state and federal). A key finding of the research is that less than one third of Australians trust government, and the vast majority are neutral in their trust (neither trusting nor distrusting). This finding is supported by the results of the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer study which found that while trust has grown for all organisations (NGOs, government, business and media), government remains in ‘distrust’ territory amongst the general population.  

To effectively implement the scale of change and reform that will be required for the growing Australian population, government needs to focus on rebuilding trust. When it comes to the legitimacy and impact of our political system, costs of doing business, sustaining a healthy and functioning democracy and consequently the wellbeing of citizens and society, trust is the number one driver. Yet, despite, or perhaps in spite of its importance trust continues to be seen as confusing, ambiguous and ill-defined.

Understanding the
drivers of trust

What are the drivers of trust, and where should government be focused to build trust?  

Through research and practice, PwC has found two sets of drivers are important to understand, establish and grow trust in government — the micro-interactions such as the provision of services to citizens, and the macro-interactions, such as policy making and communications that drive perceptions.  

Micro-level drivers of trust: experience and expectations

At the micro-level, trust is driven by the competence of government and the experience of interacting with government (‘experience trust’). It is the interactions that citizens have with government that impact their everyday lives.

The major drivers of experience trust are dependability and accountability in service delivery. They are of equal importance and are shaped by the ability of citizens to rely on government to be responsive to their needs, resolve issues in a timely and efficient manner and to use personal data responsibly.

I think they [a government organisation] sincerely want to help people who really need it and have done so in times I have needed them

Survey participant

PwC’s recent research confirms citizen satisfaction with service delivery experience is directly related to their level of trust and advocacy in government. The research also supports that satisfaction and by association trust is driven by the extent to which experiences exceed, meet or fail to meet expectations. As citizens become more connected, educated and empowered, their expectations of experience and performance rise. When governments are not equipped to meet those expectations, trust begins to erode.

[I don’t trust some government organisations] because they continuously fall short of public expectations of service and complaint resolution

Survey participant

Macro-level drivers of trust: values and perceptions

At the macro-level, trust relates to political institutions and the functioning of democracy — or policy making — with the ability of governments to manage economic and social issues, and to generate positive expectations for future well-being (‘values trust’). It relates to the degree to which citizens share common values, align with the social purpose of the organisation and identify with the way government organisations conduct themselves and deliver overall economic value for the country.

[I don’t trust some government organisations] because they are only interested in their own agendas instead of helping the general public

Survey participant

The major drivers of values trust are centred around transparency, honesty and fairness. These drivers work together and are shaped primarily by macro perceptions around ethical decision making, fair citizen treatment and the extent to which public interests are valued over self interest. Values trust is also influenced by broader and sometimes extraneous factors such as word of mouth, brand perception and media.

Where to begin when
rebuilding trust

All areas of government have a significant opportunity to build trust. Doing so will require a series of intentional actions, interventions and symbolic activities tailored to improve both the experience trust and values trust.

Increasing experience trust requires designing and delivering the customer experience with trust in mind — with a particular focus on designing for dependability and responsiveness. Importantly, as citizens access multiple services for a multitude of reasons, the focus needs to be both vertical (within an organisation) and horizontal (across organisations) to ensure consistency across the board. Specific opportunity exists to better align experience with expectations around:

  • Effortless access – Making it easy for citizens to engage through their preferred means of communication at their preferred time (e.g. easy to use mobile apps, after hours phone services). To achieve this requires a deep understanding of how customers want to engage and adopting a continuous improvement mindset to service operations.
  • Connected services – Improve information sharing between services so that citizens accessing multiple services in response to a particular circumstance or life event have a more seamless experience. Public and private sector organisations should work together to solve customer pain points by improving the overall journey experience end-to-end; not just the component parts.
  • Responsiveness  Trust cues should be designed and hardwired into the customer experience, for example accelerated pathways for urgent cases or 24 hour return call policies. Keeping customers informed of progress is critical and employees should be empowered to resolve customer issues end to end, rather than just their part of the process.  

Increasing values trust requires a focus on decisions and conduct, both experienced and perceived. Integrity, fairness and honesty is assessed broadly and has many tangible and intangible influences. Specific opportunities to build values trust include:

  • Behaviours  Work in true partnership with citizens; co-design and collaborate with them in the development of policy and services and ask their feedback to continuously improve.
  • Mindset – Put citizens at the heart of business cases; focussing on how every dollar spent will bring value back to taxpayers and improve the lives of citizens very tangibly.

Communication Build citizen awareness of what governments are doing to improve trust and translate this into what it will mean for them — in the same way a private organisation communicates to investors. Provide progress updates to ensure expectations are aligned with reality; be honest about what is working, what hasn’t worked and what is going to change.

A version of this article appeared in PwC’s new publication, Government Matters. Showcasing the work that politicians and public servants are doing to deliver value to citizens, we invite you to sign up to its regular updates.



Diane Rutter

Diane is a partner and the Consulting Diversity & Inclusion Lead and Customer Experience Lead at PwC Australia

More About Diane Rutter


Gulandam Khan

Gulandam Khan is a manager in PwC Australia’s Experience and Insights Consulting practice.

More About Gulandam Khan
Contributor Placeholder

Guest Contributor

Victoria Yates

Contributor Placeholder

Guest Contributor

Simonne Burnett