Preface – a thread of trust through MIT GOV/LAB work

Trust is a singular thread that runs through our work at MIT GOV/LAB. In our work with partners, and as part of our ethos of engaged scholarship, trust is an essential ingredient in building sustainable practitioner-academic collaborations. Trust is also central to our research — 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, increased tax compliance, and better public goods and services. To this end trust has been and remains a constant throughout our research and partnerships. 

During the Ebola epidemic in Liberia (2014-2015), our research 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. 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.

When the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world, we again saw the importance of trust in government in whether people followed public health mandates. 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, mask mandates, and later with vaccine uptake. Using experimental methods, we’ve measured how the messenger matters in whether or not people trust and follow health advice from various government authorities and civic leaders. 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. 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. Another study that we conducted in Nigeria with eHealth Africa showed that people in the same social networks — online or offline – possess similar levels of misinformation and similar levels of vaccine willingness.

Outside public health, trust is a thread on our work on 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.

Emerging research at MIT GOV/LAB 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, 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.  

This mini guide on trust seeks to capture the essentials of trust — what it is, why it matters, and how to measure it — with a focus on research and data from the global south. The aim of the guide is to be a resource to practitioners and engaged scholars working on the important issue of trust.

We hope you find it useful! 

Why does trust matter? 

Our ability to function in society greatly depends on our ability to trust the people and institutions we interact with: to have faith in the expiration date on our milk carton, the accuracy of the bus schedule, the value of our currency, the intentions of police, the legitimacy of elections, the veracity of science. 

Indeed, social science has repeatedly found evidence that trust matters for all sorts of social goods. People who trust election outcomes are more likely to vote. People who trust scientists are more likely to believe in climate change. People who trust the police are more likely to report crimes. People who trust the government are more likely to comply with government programs, from paying taxes to getting vaccinated, is in part because they are more likely to support those government programs. Moreover, 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.

However, like all virtues, trust has a flip side. When people are too trusting, they also make themselves susceptible to being taken advantage of, whether by their own governments or by fellow citizens. Too much trust in strong leaders, for example, can also enable authoritarianism, after all, even salt can look like sugar. A healthy skepticism can also allow citizens to be vigilant defenders of democracy.

But what is trust and how can we measure it?

Download the full guide above.