9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN22 Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty

Public Trust and Social Policy: The Experience of the UK

This presentation discusses issues of public trust in relation to social policy, drawing on European and especially UK experience. The argument is developed further in Reframing Social Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2008). The core point is that trust is vital to the longer-term success of public policies, just as much as the technical efficiency and effectiveness of the services offered. Policy-makers, particularly under current pressures, sometimes focus too strongly on the latter and pursue policies that may improve cost-efficiency but damage trust, so that they achieve short-term gains at the cost of undermining the continuing political viability of the system.

Trust is vital to the success of social policy for two kinds of reasons: if citizens as individuals do not trust social services they will not use them, provided that they can gain access to preferable alternatives. If citizens as a group do not trust them, they will resent paying for them and funding may eventually suffer. In either case, low trust in public provision damages political legitimacy.

The argument is supported by empirical research on the flagship UK social service, the National Health Service and by other work