Among the many lessons to be learned from our experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most important is the value of trust.
As governments have taken extraordinary steps to manage public health and economic crises in connection with COVID-19, they have asked for our trust. And we’ve given it to them. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer showed a significant bump in public trust in May of 2020, with 70 per cent of respondents aged 18 and over saying that they have trust in the government. This number was at 50 per cent as recent as January.
A defining role of any state is to protect citizens from harm. When emergencies happen, people look to their governments to provide extra support and reassurance. We expect governments to help when we are in trouble. Governments in all jurisdictions in Canada worked to meet the public’s expectations for help when businesses, schools, offices, and public spaces closed to manage the spread of COVID-19. We were given clear guidelines for social distancing to address the public health crisis, we were supplied with information and data regarding the spread of COVID-19, and we learned early on in the crisis about emergency benefits and aid packages for individuals and businesses that were meant to stabilize the economy.
In a “fiscal snapshot” issued in July of 2020, Finance Minister Bill Morneau gave a picture of the measures taken by the federal government in response to COVID-19, including the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, wage subsidies, payment deferrals, and changes in income tax collection, to name a few, in addition to border closures and procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) to contain the spread of the disease. Minister Morneau is asking us to trust the government once again and to not panic over the fact that our national debt has hit the $1 trillion mark.
There is no doubt that leadership is a key factor in building and maintaining public trust. Political leaders have been highly visible to Canadians throughout the crisis, as the Prime Minister, premiers, cabinet ministers, and public health officials spoke to us directly, and on an almost daily basis. As public trust in government has risen significantly, so too have the approval ratings for political leaders, including Prime Minister Trudeau and all provincial premiers with the exceptions of Premiers Kenney and Pallister, whose approval ratings saw only slight gains.
Politicians love to see positive growth in their approval ratings for obvious reasons, but bumps in public trust in government carry benefits beyond merely the political. Trust is indispensable to the success of government strategies to stop the spread of COVID-19. As the OECD reports, “a decline in trust can lead to lower rates of compliance with rules and regulations.” To the extent that trust can help the government to achieve public goals, it is to our collective benefit that trust be maintained.
While it is too early to tell whether public trust will be deeply affected by the events around the now cancelled WE contract, it is important to note that events like this can erode public trust both in the persons involved and in the institutions of government overall. As Canadians look to reopen the economy by managing the COVID-19 public health, this is not the time to lose trust or confidence in government. We need it more than ever.
Dr. Lori Turnbull is the Director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.
 Chiang, Chuck. 2020. “Report shows dramatic spike in Canadian public’s trust in government during Covid 19.” BIV. Available at: https://biv.com/article/2020/05/report-shows-dramatic-spike-canadian-publics-trust-government-during-covid-19
 Vigliotti, Marco. 2020. “Ford, McNeil, Higgs and Ball see approval ratings soar amid Covid 19 pandemic: ARI poll.” Ipolitics. Available at: https://ipolitics.ca/2020/05/28/ford-mcneil-higgs-and-ball-see-approval-ratings-soar-amid-covid-19-pandemic-ari-poll/
 OECD. 2013. “Trust in government, policy effectiveness and the governance agenda.” Government at a Glance. Available at: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/gov_glance-2013-6-en.pdf?expires=1594905473&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=5BA6DBC473E949FB602FEB7897486C16