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Keeping up government’s end of the trust bargain

Key takeaways

  • Trust in Australian government institutions among citizens jumped from 18% to 46% in the last two years.
  • Despite the significant uncertainty and stress brought by bushfires and COVID-19, Australians believe governments have been responsive and trustworthy.
  • To capitalise on these results, government institutions should embrace a whole-of-government approach to enhancing citizen services.

It’s fair to say the year ‘2020’ did not pan out the way most of us thought it would. Devastating bushfires were followed by a global pandemic, and economic stress and political unrest were felt across many areas of the globe. Given all the uncertainty, it would be understandable if people had lost confidence in the governments charged with protecting them. 

Yet PwC Australia’s Citizen Survey 2020 found that trust in government institutions has risen significantly. In 2018, just 18 percent of participants expressed high trust.* In June 2020, that number lept to 45 percent, and 46 percent in October four months later. Despite significant unease and stress, a large proportion of Australia’s population believes governments are responsive to citizen needs and are making morally conscious decisions, something that goes a long way to enabling government departments to deliver on their mandates.

This trust, the cornerstone of a healthy society, allows citizens to feel government can be depended upon, making them more likely to participate as a society in partnership. Having acquired these levels in 2020, governments should do all they can to sustain them.

The societal situation

Understandably, those we surveyed this year expressed unease over the societal situation. Citizens recognised the way government workforces mobilised at speed and scale to expand services and provide additional support, but the pandemic still took its toll. Thirty-two percent reported stress about their job security in June, rising to 37 percent by October. Pleasingly, however, optimism around the prospect of a speedy economic recovery increased in nearly every state.

Almost half of those surveyed believed that existing social problems have been made worse with recent events, and one in three say the lack of in-person interactions due to social isolation has had a negative impact on mental wellbeing. Indeed, 38 percent of people felt disconnected from the world and others due to COVID-19, a figure which rose to 44 percent in the second survey. Twenty-nine percent reported that they felt negatively impacted by a lack of in-person interaction in June, by October, that number rose to 35 percent.

Unfortunately, not all groups experienced the pandemic in the same way. Culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and young citizens were more likely to feel stressed about job security, and less confident dealing in uncertainty than other citizens. For CALD citizens, the belief that the government was exceeding expectations fell from 39 percent in June to just 25 percent in October. For 18-24 year old Australians, October figures were worryingly small — only 22 percent had high trust in government and only 12 percent felt government institutions were exceeding expectations.

The good news is that for 43 percent of citizens, the government response has made them feel highly secure. And we found that the positive attributes that citizens ascribe to governments — from accountability, data ethics and responsibility to consistency and morality — have all gone up. 

Digital validation

During the pandemic, the use of digital channels by respondents increased, validating investment in digital service delivery. With so many Australians accessing government services virtually, a big opportunity to turn digital-first into a habit has arisen. A whole-of-government approach to transformation would enable customer-centric cultures and practices to permeate and humanise digital experiences. An ecosystem of personalised digital products and services, with micro-moments of delivery across touch points and contextualised to a person’s specific needs and circumstances would be a result that citizens would welcome. 

To do that governments must increase transparency and trust around data-driven technologies. Australians remain cautious and protective of their personal data. While governments have invested heavily in cybersecurity, 57 percent of those surveyed said their personal privacy was of paramount importance and they weren’t willing to compromise it under any circumstance — a fact that tallies with the lower than expected uptake of COVID-19 tracing apps.  Only 1 in 3 respondents said they were comfortable sharing their data online instead of attending government services in person and only 38 percent were willing to trade their personal data privacy for easier access to government services.

Governments therefore need to demonstrate their commitment to ethical design, where human concerns and moral standards are placed front and centre in services, supported by a framework setting out principles and foundations around the design, security and protection of personal data — and how it is used. 

Repaying trust with service

How then should government institutions respond to the trust given by its citizens, or for the most vulnerable groups, increase it? To start with, they should continue to enhance the citizen experience of services, including:

  • Effortless access – By understanding how citizens want to engage, governments can enable access via a customer’s preferred channel at their preferred time and with a personalised experience (e.g. virtual services to conveniently interact; after hours services based on business needs).
  • Connected services – By sharing information between agencies, citizens can seamlessly access multiple services in response to a particular circumstance or life event. Public and private sector organisations should work together to solve customer pain points by improving the entire end-to-end experience, not just select parts.
  • Responsiveness – Trust cues should be designed and hardwired into the customer experience (e.g. accelerated pathways for urgent cases or 24-hour return call policies). Keeping customers updated is critical and employees should be empowered to improve the complete customer journey, rather than resolve issues individually.

Governments should further retain and grow citizen trust by fostering values such as:

  • Behaviours – By collaborating with citizens and industry, governments can co-design policy and services (and seek feedback to continuously improve).
  • Mindsets – Putting citizens at the heart of government business cases helps focus attention on how every dollar spent will deliver value to taxpayers and tangibly improve the lives of citizens.

Trusted and true

During trying times, people look to those in charge for support and reassurance. For Australians, government institutions have been largely successful in their endeavours during the challenging circumstances in 2020. 

This trust should not be taken lightly, and efforts to both keep it, and further develop it for those citizens who are most vulnerable, should be embraced with genuine empathy and resources. Not only will citizens be better prepared for uncertain times, they will reward governments with the latitude to do what is needed to ensure their safety and security.

More citizen findings and subsequent recommendations for government can be found in the full report, PwC Australia’s Citizen Survey 2020: Driving citizen-led transformation.

*In the comparable PwC Trust Survey.


Diane Rutter

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