Public trust and the intertwined fate of institutions in the Covid-19 pandemic

What factors determine public trust in government restrictions to mitigate the spread of Covid-19? Goran Dominioni, Alberto Quintavalla, Alessandro Romano and Cecilia Sottilotta argue that an overlooked factor is the role played by other governments and institutions, and that mastering this dynamic is critical to risk management

A lack of trust in government reduces people’s propensity to respect precautions aimed at mitigating the spread of Covid-19. One determinant of public trust in government is the action of other governments and institutions (supranational, national and sub-national) because there are spillovers in terms of trust among institutions. Understanding trust spillovers is therefore critical to managing the pandemic.

Mapping spillovers of trust

A taxonomy mapping spillovers between European and national institutions highlights the complex inter-institutional dynamics characterising public trust in supranational, national and subnational institutions during the pandemic.

Understanding trust spillovers is critical to managing the pandemic

Starting from the premise that there is an interaction in terms of trust between two institutions when there are trust spillovers between them, our taxonomy reveals the existence of five kinds of interactions: two are unilateral (spillovers go only from one institution to the other), and three bilateral (spillovers that go from institution A to B and from institution B to A).


Unilateral Interactions

  • Unilateral congruence
    There is unilateral congruence between two institutions when an increase in the trust of institution A increases the trust for institution B, but a change in the trust in institution B does not affect trust in institution A. This type of interaction can arise when people have better information about institution A than about institution B, and therefore use institution A as a proxy to evaluate institution B. It is plausible that the public does not possess much information on the functioning of the World Health Organization (WHO); consequently, they could assess the WHO's performance based on the performance of their national government. This dynamic also implies the absence of trust spillovers from the WHO to national governments.
  • Unilateral compensation
    Like unilateral congruence, unilateral compensation is based on the idea that people have much more information about one institution than the other. In this case, however, the better-known institution is used as a benchmark to evaluate the lesser-known institution. For instance, German citizens plausibly have much better information about the German than the Portugese government. Therefore, they might use the German government as a benchmark against which to compare the quality of Portuguese institutions. At the same time, it is unlikely that German citizens know enough about the Portuguese government to form a precise opinion about it. Therefore, it is unlikely that the spillovers go also from the Portuguese government to the German government.

Bilateral interactions

  • Asymmetric interaction
    There is an asymmetric interaction between two institutions when an increase in the trust for institution A reduces the trust for institution B, while an increase in the trust for institution B increases the trust for institution A. This type of interaction could occur, for instance, when the public tends to evaluate EU institutions based on the perceived performance of national ones. Yet citizens who know enough about EU institutions benchmark the performance of such institutions against those of national institutions. In this situation, an increase in the trust in, say, the national parliament could generate a positive spillover onto the European parliament, and an increase in the trust in the European parliament could generate a negative spillover onto the national parliament.
  • Bilateral compensation
    There is bilateral compensation between two institutions when growth in trust for one reduces the trust for the other. Consider, for instance, Veneto and Lombardy, the two regions at the epicentre of the first wave of the Italian pandemic. Veneto is perceived to have contained the spread of the virus much better than Lombardy. The performance of the two Governors, Fontana (Lombardy) and Zaia (Veneto) are often compared. Because of this comparison, it is plausible to assume that trust in Zaia increases when trust for Fontana decreases, and trust in Fontana decreases when trust in Zaia increases.
  • Bilateral congruence
    There is bilateral congruence between two institutions when a decrease in trust for one reduces trust in the other – or growth in trust for one increases trust in the other. An interaction of this kind might exist between the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission (EC) because both institutions acted to mitigate the economic consequences of Covid-19. For instance, the ECB scaled up support to Italy’s ailing public finances via a public sector asset-purchase programme (PSPP), and the EC helped introduce a recovery plan by working to reconcile the diverging positions of member states on the introduction of some form of debt mutualisation within the Eurozone. As the two institutions have been working towards the same objective – facilitating their respective tasks – it is plausible that the interaction between them is bilateral congruence.

Politicians must think beyond their constituencies

In times when global health security is only as strong as its weakest link, politicians and policy-makers need to be cognisant of the impact of their conduct on public trust towards other institutions, and the consequent public propensity to abide by pandemic restrictions.

politicians and policy-makers need to be cognisant of the impact of their conduct on public trust towards other institutions

For example, Italian PM Giuseppe Conte’s conduct in the domestic arena (and specifically to counter domestic opposition) during the negotiation of the post-Covid EU recovery plan may actually have eroded public trust in less hawkish politicians in the Netherlands, thereby influencing the final outcome.

The taxonomy provides an innovative framework that can help politicians and policy-makers think about the potential effects of their behaviour beyond their direct constituencies, and guide them towards mitigating risks. And empirical research can support this endeavour by identifying regularities in the kind(s) of interactions that tend to prevail among different institutions.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Goran Dominioni Goran Dominioni Assistant Professor in Law, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University More by this author
photograph of Cecilia Emma Sottilotta Cecilia Emma Sottilotta Assistant Professor of International Relations and Global Politics at the American University of Rome More by this author
photograph of Alberto Quintavalla Alberto Quintavalla Lecturer, School of Law, Erasmus University Rotterdam More by this author
photograph of Alessandro Romano Alessandro Romano Assistant Professor, Department of Law, Università Bocconi More by this author

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