Public Servants Are Trusted

Survey data illustrates New Zealanders having trust in the public services. Our level of trust in the public sector is high, towards the top of international ratings, and higher than our trust in the private sector. Contrary to many other countries, trust in public services in New Zealand has been increasing, not decreasing – even before the pandemic.

Do you find this hard to believe, listening to the noise in the media? Our opinions are formed primarily through the media, and secondly through friends and family. We sit within echo chambers on social media. When asked if we trust “the public service” just over 60% say we do. However, when we directly use public services, over 80% of us report trust.

So why do some of us fail to trust the public service when our actual experience of receiving the services is largely positive?

You will have noticed that everyone speaks well of the “front line” workers such as nurses, teachers, customs officers and many others.  Yet these front-line workers could not function without public servants striving behind the scenes. The portrayal of public servants as “faceless bureaucrats” alienates New Zealanders from them, and yet we rely on these public servants for the foundations of our society. They ensure our food is safe to eat, they set up 111 lines, they organise for our rubbish to be collected, they deliver the benefit system, student loan support, they regulate our airspace, they protect our native species – the list goes on.

Some public service staff receive bouquets of appreciation. Others do not; for example the public servants who designed and delivered the wage subsidy in extraordinary timeframes are invisible. Is it about perceptions of Wellington-based public servants being negatively tainted by association with politicians when commentators are criticising a Government they do not like?

There are New Zealanders who do not trust public servants, they may have a poor experience of services, an overall sense of alienation or disempowerment, or because they do not feel comfortable or understood. Too many of these are Māori or Pasifika. The public service is working hard to earn their trust. Being trusted is so important for the public service to be effective.