Public confidence in civil servants drops, poll finds – but they're still more trusted than ministers

Ipsos Mori research shows a drop in trust of  politicians, ministers, business leaders, charity leaders, and the ordinary man in the street

By Suzannah Brecknell

06 Dec 2016

Image by Steph Gray, licensed under Creative Commons

Public trust in civil servants fell by three percentage points in 2016, according to the latest research from Ipsos Mori, though officials are still significantly more trusted than politicians and MPs.

Each year the polling company asks members of the public whether they generally trust certain professions to tell the truth. Just over half – 56% – of respondents said they trust civil servants to tell the truth, down from 59% last year. That compares to 20% who trusted ministers and 15% who trusted politicians.

Civil servants were seen as more credible than journalists, business leaders and local councillors, but less trustworthy than hairdressers, the police, television news readers, and the ordinary man in the street.

Trust in civil servants rises again — poll
Trust in civil servants rising; politicians least trusted group

Trust in the honesty of civil servants has been rising over time, and despite this year's dip still remains higher than when the research began in 1983. Then, only 25% of the public said they trusted civil servants to tell the truth and 63% said they distrusted civil servants.

Despite the long-term positive trend, civil servants should not be complacent about public trust, says Ipsos Mori's head of political research Gideon Skinner.

"Even though overall the long term trend is positive, there are by no means high levels of trust among every group of society," he told CSW.  "There are still a few groups beyond the young, graduates and middle classes who are less trusting of the civil service."

"Baby boomers are not hugely more positive than they were in 1997, but each successive generation is  more trusting of civil servants" – Gideon Skinner, Ipsos Mori

Levels of trust in the civil service are higher among younger respondents, particularly those in so-called Generation Y – those born between 1980 to 2000. Among this group 69% said they thought civil servants would tell the truth, compared to 43% of baby-boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).

Skinner says that previous Ipsos Mori research, conducted in 2013, suggests lower levels of trust among older people does not seem to be caused by growing cynicism as people age, but rather by changing attitudes among younger generations.

"Baby boomers are not hugely more positive than they were in 1997, but each successive generation is  more trusting [of civil servants]," he explained.

Trust in civil servants was also higher among respondents living in urban areas, and rose with education levels – just 47% of people with no formal qualifications believed civil servants were likely to tell the truth, compared to 69% of those with a degree or post graduate qualification. 

Broadsheet readers were also twice as likely to trust civil servants as those who said they usually read tabloid papers.

Skinner added that honesty is just one part of overall trust in a particular group and there will be lots of other factors which influence levels of public trust – for example, perceptions of impartiality or competence among civil servants.

Brexit trust

Although civil servants are generally trusted to tell the truth, they were rated the least trustworthy sources of information on issues relating to the EU referendum, according to a separate poll carried out by Ipsos Mori in the spring.

Just one in five people who supported the Leave campaign said they trusted civil servants on referendum issues, compared to one in three Remain supporters.

Skinner points out that this may reflect the different demographics of Leave and Remain supporters – the typical remain supporter was likely to be young, urban and with a higher degree of education, making them more likely to trust the truthfulness of civil servants in general.

The EU poll found that officials were the third least-trusted group, above journalists – trusted by just 18% of Leave supporters and 17% of Remain supporters – and politicians – trusted by 13% of Remain supporters and only 9% of Leave supporters.

By contrast, the most trusted groups on referendum issues were friends and family, academics, and small business owners. 

Even among these groups, there were key differences between Leave and Remain voters, with Leave supporters more likely to trust small business owners while Remainers trusted large business owners, for example.

In a statement on the results, Skinner said: "There's been much discussion about the dawn of a 'post-truth' era in politics, but our long-term trends show that politicians have never exactly been the most trusted of professions.

"Even so, lack of trust clearly played an important part in the EU referendum, with big differences between who Remain and Leave voters trusted, and the Leave campaign mostly winning the argument. Understanding this dynamic is more complicated than simply that people are tired of experts, as this report shows, but which side of the fence you sat had an impact too."

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