Civil servants are losing trust in the wider public sector – and each other

Survey reveals falling trust in the wider public sector among officials – while trust in private partners rises
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By Civil Service World

20 Sep 2023


Trust in the wider public sector has declined among civil servants, according to a survey carried out by CSW, with officials less likely to say they can find common goals with colleagues across the public sector than in 2022.

Officials were also less likely to describe public sector colleagues as honest and reliable, although they still perceive them as more honest than commercial partners and even other civil servants.

The second annual CSW trust survey polled civil servants across 15 departments and agencies about their experience working with seven types of organisations: local government; commercial partners; the voluntary and community sector; academia; the wider public service; non-departmental public bodies and executive agencies; and other government departments. 

Civil servants were asked whether they find it easy to work with colleagues in each given sector; if they believe them to be open and honest; if they are able to find common ground and goals with them; if they share common values; and if the people in the sector are reliable. 

Of more than 700 people surveyed, just under two-thirds (62%) said they deem partners in the wider public sector to be “open and honest”. This compared favourably with commercial partners (seen as open and honest by 51% of respondents) and even other government departments fared better (60%). But it represents a large drop from the 2022 survey, in which 72% of respondents described the wider public sector as open and honest.

The survey also showed a large drop in the proportion of civil servants who said colleagues in the wider public sector are reliable – from 71% in 2022 to 65% in 2023 – and those who said they shared common ground with those colleagues – from 81% in 2022 to 69% in 2023.

There was also a large drop – eight percentage points – in the proportion of respondents who said colleagues in local government are open and honest. This brought the sector into the second-last position in terms of perceived honesty, tied with government departments.

The voluntary and community sector was seen as the most honest (77%), followed by academia (69%), and NDPBS and agencies (65%).

Organisations in the wider public sector also dropped down CSW’s overall trust rating – calculated by averaging out the percentage of survey respondents who agreed with five positive statements about the partner organisations they work with. The higher the score, the more likely it is that civil servants feel able to build strong partnerships with those organisations. 

Public sector bodies had a trust score of 74% in 2022 – putting them at the top of the list. But in 2023 they fell to joint third place, with a trust ranking of 65%.

Overall trust in local government also dropped – from 69% to 63% – as did trust in other government departments – from 68% to 66%.

But despite showing that misaligned objectives can present a barrier to collaboration, the survey suggested that civil servants do think positively about other departments.
It asked respondents to indicate how strongly they agreed with statements such as “this department is open and collaborative” and “this department has a clear goal”.

While the response rate to these questions was lower than the overall survey, the results showed a broad consistency and reflects largely positive perspectives from civil servants about other government departments.

Commercial organisations remained the least trusted although their untrustworthy score has fallen by 5 points since 2022. The voluntary and community sector got the highest overall trust rating of 73%, closely followed by academia (66%) and other government departments (66%). 

However, the VCS and academia are also the areas our survey respondents are least likely to work with – with just 16% saying they have partners in these sectors. 
Only one in five respondents said they work with the wider public sector, and one in four work with local government.

By contrast, four in five respondents said they work with other government departments and just under half (47%) work with commercial partners.

CSW also asked civil servants to share the biggest barriers to collaboration with different partners. 

In every case, at least half the respondents said a lack of understanding around how the different organisations work impedes collaboration. This was especially the case with local government – where nearly two-thirds named this as a barrier – and the wider public sector. 

Another commonly cited stumbling block was different organisational or professional cultures. This was particularly apparent for NDPBs and agencies – 62% of respondents named this as a main barrier to working with agencies, compared to an average of 54% across all sectors.

Respondents were most likely to cite misaligned objectives – or the perception of such – as a barrier when talking about other government departments, with 43% of respondents giving this as a main barrier. 

Download the full results of the CSW trust survey here

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