As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, public sector employees were on the front line, crucial to policies to limit the contagion and alleviate its economic effects. Collaboration—and hence trust—was essential. Whether working in public health agencies or in communications roles, public sector employees had to work together to implement decisions made at the political level. They had to exchange information and coordinate their responses.
The COVID-19 crisis for all its tragedy thus provided an opportunity to examine how trust among public sector employees may or may not work to ensure a well-functioning, highly effective public sector.
In June 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean, the IDB conducted a survey to collect data on trust and policy preferences from public sector employees in 18 Latin American countries. The survey, one of the first to gather such information in the region, asked respondents about their level of trust in public sector employees and citizens. In doing so, it distinguished between co-workers—those with whom the respondent interacts regularly—and public employees in general.
Varying Levels of Trust in the Region
The findings were illuminating. In the three main regions of Latin America and the Caribbean—Southern Cone, the Andean Region, and Central America—trust in coworkers stands at around 60%, higher than trust in citizens, and substantially higher than trust in public employees in general, which registers at about 45%. All three measures of trust were lower in the Andean Region and in countries without a merit-based civil service system.
The survey included randomized experiments to examine the effects of different scenarios related to the COVID-19 pandemic on the policy attitudes of public sector employees. In one of the experiments the survey measured attitudes toward social distancing policies. One treatment, positive framing, showed respondents a bar chart with the country’s level of social distancing at the beginning of the pandemic, alongside the world average, which at the time of the experiment was lower than in Latin American countries. Thus the positive treatment presented a scenario of relatively high social distancing. The other treatment, negative framing, showed a similar bar chart reporting each country’s level of social distancing alongside the national statistic of Spain, which at the time had greater adherence to social distancing than Latin American countries. Thus the negative treatment presented a scenario of relatively low social distancing. See Figure 1.
Figure 1: Negative Framing Treatment
Trust And Attitudes Towards Government Action
The results of this experiment are presented graphically in Figure 2. The figure plots mean differences between the negative and positive treatments for two attitudinal outcomes by public employees’ trust in coworkers. An interesting finding is that negative framing of national social distancing outcomes (the comparison with Spain) affected low-trust public employees differently than high-trust public employees. Low-trust public employees on average reacted by assigning more responsibility to the government and by favoring stricter enforcement of social distancing, likely because they believe the government response to the pandemic had been inadequate. High-trust public employees had the opposite response, wanting the government to have less responsibility and preferring weaker enforcement of social distancing. The difference in treatment effects between the two groups is statistically significant in both cases and is robust to controlling for trust in citizens.
Figure 2: Responses to Negative Treatment, by Trust Level
The study also found that high-trust public employees have a more positive view of cooperation with coworkers on team projects and other shared tasks and are more likely to rely on information obtained from coworkers. Similarly, high-trust employees are more supportive of online delivery of public services and report a higher level of effectiveness by their government agency in the year before the pandemic. These data patterns indicate that trust facilitates productive working relationships and encourages openness to innovation. Additional findings are reported in the full study.
Public Sector Performance at Stake
Effective policy implementation depends on public sector employees that exchange information, coordinate their actions, respond to citizen needs, and use their discretion over public policy in a way that maximizes citizen welfare. Mistrust—in other public employees and in citizens themselves—impedes each of these. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the value of a well-functioning public sector. Elected public officials should recognize this fact and invest in a highly professionalized and well-organized public sector.