“When people trust the government, they are more likely to trust each other, because they know the government has got their back. And this general interpersonal trust also deeply matters. Those who are more trusting tend to be more willing to engage with civil society. They are often healthier. They are richer. They are happier.” MIT GOV/LAB Trust Mini Guide

Trust is central to MIT GOV/LAB’s research agenda — a defining measure to better understand the relationship between people and their governments and a critical component for achieving citizen engagement and government accountability. 

We know that more trust in government is related to higher levels of citizen cooperation and voluntary compliance. And, we know that more trust in government has positive spillovers to better institutions and better public goods and services. To this end trust has been and remains a constant throughout our research and partnerships. Below is a summary of trust related projects with links to publications and research outputs.

Trust transfer and costly signaling

  • Trust in government during the Ebola epidemic. Our research in Liberia (2014-2015) found citizen distrust in government and negative experiences during the outbreak appeared to be a major reason why people did not use health services. Furthermore, people who expressed low trust in government were much less likely to take precautions against Ebola or to abide by government-mandated social distancing mechanisms designed to contain the spread of the virus.

  • Costly signals of trustworthiness. To successfully combat Ebola, our research also showed that a door-to-door campaign of community volunteers, who had high trust in the communities and could “loan” their trustworthiness to the government, were able to spread valuable information and changed public practices during the epidemic. The community health workers told people where they lived, so that if the information they shared was incorrect, they could be held accountable. This is an example of costly signaling, an action or behavior with potential consequences that puts significant personal value on the line, to demonstrate to the public that governments are not motivated by their own self-interest.

Trust and compliance with public health measures

  • Trust during the Covid-19 pandemic. Based on lessons learned from our Ebola research, we worked closely with partners in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya to understand how trust impacts compliance with social distancing and mask mandates, and later how it affects vaccine uptake. Using experimental methods, we’ve measured how the messenger matters in whether or not people trust and follow health advice from government authorities and civic leaders. 
  • Trust and willingness to vaccinate. In Sierra Leone, research conducted with the Institute for Governance Reform and government partners showed that people with higher levels of trust in government also had a higher willingness to vaccinate their children. 
  • Trust in public health workers. In Uganda, a study conducted with Makerere University School of Public Health showed that recommendations from the Ministry of Health garner more support than those from other leaders. MIT GOV/LAB collaborated with researchers in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal, and Nigeria on phone surveys to measure factors influencing vaccine uptake and interest. Preliminary results across all four countries suggest that rural communities had less access to vaccines, show that citizens value thoughtful care from staff at health care facilities, and reveal that people who trusted the Ministry of Health were more likely to be vaccinated. 

Intentions matter for building trust

  • Trust and community policing in Liberia. One important lesson learned from this study is that police–community meetings can have an impact on changing citizens’ perceptions of the police. In this case, Liberia’s form of community policing is effective at improving community attitudes towards the police, mobilizing support for community watch forums, and reducing incidences of mob violence and support for vigilantism.
  • Trust and government bureaucracies. Research on bureaucracy also examines the role of trust in quality of service delivery and how people interact with local government in between major elections. In particular, we are interested in understanding how the capacity and intention of government workers, especially in the global south, impacts citizens’ trust and willingness to engage with the government for improved services. For example, in the project with Makerere University School of Public Health, we found that people preferred going to a health center with well-intentioned staff and lower capacity than a center with not well-intentioned staff and high capacity for a vaccination. We think this line of investigation is critical to understanding and improving everyday interactions and trust between citizens and government. In an ongoing project with Busara, we are collecting qualitative and quantitative data to understand how in-person access compared to online access to public services influences citizens’ trust and perceptions of government.

Trust vs trustworthy technology

  • Trust in government technology. At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, new technologies were  developed to help track and manage disease spread. Based on our research, Professor Tsai gave a lightning talk on how to build trust given high levels of distrust in government, technology and society. We’ve supported the World Bank’s discussions around GovTech, trust and accountability. We’re also exploring challenges and opportunities of using AI-assisted deliberative democracy tools. 

MIT GOV/LAB’s work on trust continues to grow and evolve, especially as citizen trust in government continues to decline. For more on what trust is and how to measure it, see our Trust Mini Guide

Photo by Leonard von Bibra on Unsplash.