Resetting the relationship between local and national government. Read our Local Government White Paper

Perceptions: The fact and fiction of trust and satisfaction

Local councillors and local government have consistently remained more trusted than national politicians. Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, explains.


Key points

  • The public is getting fed up with austerity. The proportion who think more cuts are needed has fallen to 22 per cent.
  • Clarity and consistency still matter as public awareness of local government remains stubbornly low.
  • Where local government needs to be good is on Facebook – that’s where you will find two-thirds of the public (not on Twitter).

A crisis of trust?

Trust is in short supply we are told. Every year at Davos, the global elite chastise themselves over what some describe as a profound crisis in trust since the 2008 global banking crash. And it is true that in both Britain and the USA – and especially the USA – trust in central government has fallen. In the American case, sharply.

Yet Ipsos MORI has been looking at the perceived veracity of professions since 1983 and what we have to show is a rather different picture.

First, trust in professions is broadly stable over the last three decades. Politicians have never been much trusted. In 2017 only 17 per cent trusted politicians to tell the truth, similar to 18 per cent in 1983.

But local councillors – and indeed local government – have consistently remained more trusted than national politicians. 

And one Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove, was not particularly accurate when he said no one trusts experts any more. Doctors and nurses remain the most trusted professions. 

The biggest shifts in public trust over 30 years have been a fall of 20 points in the trustworthiness of the clergy, but conversely, a rise in trust in professors and scientists by similar amounts. Trust in civil servants has risen by 43 points since 1983. 

In local government in fact, one could argue that that local government managers have not done badly, losing 50 per cent of central grant income but keeping public satisfaction levels broadly up. There is no crisis, of trust at least, in local government.

What there is of course is a shortage of money. Some six out of ten of us now worry that public services will do too little in the years ahead. The General Election of 2017, and the strong showing of a left-wing Labour party, showed how the public is getting fed up with austerity. 

The proportion who think more cuts are needed to pay off the national debt has fallen to 22 per cent. Two-thirds now think that government services should be extended, even if it means increasing some taxes, up from a low of 46 per cent in 2009. 

The long-term impact of change

Part of the reason for this is that hysteresis is now kicking in. This is a dull economist’s term for the long term cumulative effect of changes – and you can see this in social care. 

Sir Michael Marmot argues that improvements in longevity that the UK had been seeing for decades and have levelled off since 2010 may be the effect of cuts in support for older people. In prisons, and the NHS, we can see similar effects of either cuts or spending not matching demand.

We’ve seen a significant increase in people saying that public services have got worse. In 2016, 40 per cent said services had got worse over the previous five years, up from around 30 per cent saying the same in 1998 – despite the late 1990s being a period of particular pressure on public services, before Labour loosened controls on spending.

There are also signs that the public has heard the repeated message about the need for cuts and managed its expectations downwards. In 1998, 40 per cent of people said public services were falling short of their expectations – but only 28 per cent said this by 2016.

It’s an almost perfect mirror: we are more likely to think services are worse, but also more likely to say that’s acceptable to us.  

In this context, satisfaction with local government has drifted down over the last decade, but remains similarly rated to the National Health Service, which of course is much more loved – two-thirds of us say we are satisfied with local government. 

With cuts in many universal services, to protect people services like social care that only a small minority use, now only 50 per cent of us think we get value for money from our council, but again, given rising Council Tax bills to fund services most people do not use directly, one cannot be surprised.

In terms of responsiveness, 59 per cent of us still say local government acts on the concerns of residents – similar to 2012. It may well be that we have adjusted our expectations of public services, which are particular to their context. 

Good communications mean satisfied residents

The key question is whether we’re nearing a base level, where the public find it unacceptable to lower their expectations further. How should local government respond? Clarity and consistency continue to matter as public awareness of local government remains stubbornly low.

While the public will always choose cutting expenditure on communications over spending on services, communications matter as much as ever. We still find those who feel their council keeps them well informed are markedly more satisfied than those who do not. Those who feel well informed about details of services provided are much more likely to think they are getting value for money than those who do not. 

The key issue is making sure all your channels are effective – my local council only looks at its Twitter account between the hours of 9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday – which can mean all sorts of issues play out in full view without being responded to. I delight in posting the rubbish strewn over my street and wait days for an answer.

However, it might be that my council has clocked that most people are NOT on Twitter. Where local government needs to be good is on Facebook – that’s where two-thirds of the public are. And a cursory examination of Facebook pages shows – as ever – how variable local authorities are.

Some are live pages, used by the community, others dull things with mostly job vacancies. Socitim’s Better Connected initiative shows that if councils are switching to digital, they still have some way to go in terms of how they interact.

While our analysis shows that people do not expect their local authority to be as responsive as Amazon, they do want the basics to work. 

On many digital services, Socitim rate only a minority of councils as “good”, whereas they do better on providing information. Challenges abound.

Overall in many ways, taking stock in 2018 suggests that local government has played the hand dealt to it by central government since 2010 well. Its core funding has been sharply reduced, and its freedoms provide very different opportunities in different places, depending on the state of the local economy. 

There are brilliant entrepreneurial examples of joint working with other public services in places like Wigan, and in others, financial problems like Northamptonshire. 

Local government is not a national service. It is not meant to be the same everywhere. But as ever, the councils that perform better in terms of public opinion are the ones that communicate most effectively! 

Reading and links