Arthur W. Page Society

New Study Highlights Root Communication Causes for Public Distrust in Government

Page members know well that the public distrusts government in the U.S., as well as in many other countries. 

For example, the most recent (2023) Edelman Trust Barometer found the public distrusted governments in 16 of 28 countries that it tracked, including the U.S., U.K., S. Korea, Italy, Japan, Germany, Argentina and Australia. 

The faculty of the College of Professional Studies (CPS) at The George Washington University (GWU) decided to explore the reasons behind this decline and identify how government-based communicators can improve this unfortunate situation.

Our research, the GPA Study, is the result of a partnership between CPS, the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC), Ragan/PR Daily and Axios. Together, we investigated the decline, with a specific focus on government communication and communicators.

Working with Schoen Cooperman Research, (SCR), we polled more than 200 communicators in November and December 2022. The respondents were composed of two groups: government communicators at the federal, state and local levels; and PR/PA professionals in the private sector and at nonprofits who interact with government.

Let’s look at our study’s results: 

56% Say Public ‘Somewhat Trusts’ Government

Our study found trust in government communication flagging. Slightly more than half (56%) of all communicators we surveyed said the public “somewhat trusts” government information. 

The major factors reducing trust was not unexpected. The study found that 68% said disinformation is the leading cause of a decline in trust. The second factor (58%) was the perception that politics, not public service, motivates government communication.

Other findings from the GW study include: 

As well, more than half (55%) of the communicators surveyed said the most important factor in restoring public trust in government messaging is to: “…refine strategies and tactics to more effectively reach different groups of Americans, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Respondents agreed that training and continuing education (particularly in deploying social media) offer a remedy for the dated approach that is damaging government communication and hence public trust. 

At GW, we realize that improving trust in government will not happen without a long term, concerted effort. Yet, we believe that more resources devoted to training as well as updating generic communication strategies and tactics now will lead to improved trust and better service to the public.

Reflecting this goal, year two of our GPA study (to be fielded in fall 2023) we will include a poll of the public on how government can improve communications and rebuild trust. 

Follow this link to get a copy of the full 2023 GPA research report:

Lawrence J. Parnell is associate professor and director of the Strategic Public Relations master’s program at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management

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