Do students trust governments?

OECD Observer

Students are traditionally active members of civil society as well as critics of government action. Whether as intellectuals or as frontline activists of non-government organisations, they play a lead role in the unfolding story of globalisation. And because they are also the future, their voices must be heard.

Adriaan Buyserd is Dutch and Lampros Kontogeorgos is Greek. Both are graduate students studying international public administration at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, and both will be taking part in the parallel summit for students that is being staged this month in Rotterdam alongside the OECD ministerial meeting on trust in government.

Messrs Buyserd and Kontogeorgos come from countries that could hardly be more different within the confines of one cramped continent. Yet both are global-minded citizens of the EU, and each is pursuing an international career path. And they are doing this at a moment when the ubiquitious “Blackberry” and similar devices have abolished the concept of distance for virtual communications, and cheap quick flights around Europe have replaced the creaking night trains and stale sandwiches of yesterday’s Interrailing students.

We asked them if today’s students feel that democratic governments can be trusted. Do they think that politicians do too little or attempt too much for their own citizens and the wider community? What are their expectations for society and public affairs in a world where corporate and political scandal, civil disturbance, disaster and violence routinely grab the headlines?

If Messrs Buyserd and Kontogeorgos are anything to go by, there is a relatively high level of trust in government among students, albeit hedged with caveats. Adriaan Buyserd suggests that politicians and administrators are as competent in their field of expertise as are other professionals.

“The nub of the problem lies in the substance of their societal role; they are assigned to make the most difficult of choices, aren’t they? And when the essence of your job is to favour some interests –or people– over others, you are bound to arouse a lot of dissatisfaction,” he reckons.

At the same time, people are likely to trust their governments more if they feel certain about their own situation and future. For example, Mr Kontogeorgos points to statistics showing that levels of trust are higher in the Nordic countries and the Netherlands than they are in countries like France and Italy. He believes that a major reason for this is that in places such as Sweden and Norway “the welfare state is strong enough to make sure that nobody in need is excluded. People feel that their government is there for them.”

Perceptions about levels of honesty and corruption also have an influence. Mr Kontogeorgos makes the traditional North/South distinction, saying that people in the Nordic area see their governments as basically honest. “Conversely, in the Mediterranean countries, corruption is on the daily agenda,” he adds. Scandals involving politicians are more than frequent, and “in many of the transactions between citizens and the public sector, bribery is necessary.”

Beyond these local differences there is a much more general malaise among the public everywhere, arising from a feeling that their own governments are no longer fully in control, and that they fail to secure their own national interests in the world. Typically, the government “is held responsible for a myriad of global changes that produce detrimental effects in everyday life,” says Mr Buyserd. Yet individual governments cannot control these circumstances, and “for a complex set of reasons states are partially surrendering their capacity to act.”

Also, incidents such as the recent political murders in the Netherlands and unrest in French suburbs are seen as symptoms of the increasing alienation of parts of the population from government and the rest of society. “You cannot segregate entire classes of citizens or fail to make any effort to integrate them in society, and get away with it,” Mr Buyserd comments.

Governments are not entirely at fault. Individuals need to make more effort and be more open towards migrants. “Simple things make a huge difference,” Mr Buyserd suggests. “I, for example, am about the only white person on my block, so I buy my groceries from a Moroccan, have a Chinese hairdresser, and order Turkish pizza as junk food.”

What should governments do in light of these views and experiences? According to Mr Kontogeorgos, we may even need more government, not less, though he weighs his words. “Maybe not in the old sense of constant intervention, but in a new way that will make it clear to all citizens that the elected government remains the vehicle for the promotion of the collective good.”

Mr Buyserd reckons that governments need to establish an “environment of certainty and stability” that will help citizens to take responsibility for arranging their own lives. Nonetheless, he also believes that there has to be a safety net “for those who do not manage”.

On a regional level, Mr Buyserd is convinced that Europe needs to create something resembling a “post-modern” state in order to secure the survival of the European way of life. He is proud to say that he voted in favour of the EU constitutional treaty in 2005, which most of his compatriots rejected. On the other hand, he thought that the Netherlands government campaign to persuade people to vote “yes” was negative–he calls it “shameful”–and actually backfired by repelling voters that might otherwise be pro-European.

If students in the 1960s marched on the left, their children in the 1980s put on business suits and took briefcases to college.The situation nowadays is less clear. The globalisation issue provides a prominent example, revealing divisions of opinion among the young.

For instance, according to Mr Kontogeorgos, “many people in Greece–students especially–tend to blame globalisation for everything that goes wrong”. This includes jobs moving to other countries and rising unemployment. “As long as no solutions are given to counter-balance the negative effects of globalisation, it will remain a source of uncertainty–and sometimes of riots,” he declares.

By way of contrast, Mr Buyserd paints a sunnier–and maybe more personal–picture. He says that, at least so far as Dutch students are concerned, “this generation of youngsters is more conformist than in the demonstration-prone 1960s or beyond,” and that few seem angry or uncertain over globalisation. He adds that his peers are inclined to address the problems connected with globalisation by working through the system rather than by protest, and that overall “they view the globalisation story more as a window of opportunities–from exotic food to cheap foreign holidays”.

If governments can work openly to provide stability and an environment in which responsible individuals can carry on reaping such fruits, while at the same time investing in social institutions and in particular protecting citizens against any possible negative consequences of globalisation, then they will probably get high marks from many students, and probably greater trust from other citizens as well. And by listening closely to the students’ views expressed at the parallel forum in Rotterdam, governments would show that they are serious about winning that confidence. RJC/MR


Pollitt, Christopher Pollitt and Geert Bouckaert (2004), Public Management Reform: A Comparative Analysis, Second Edition, Oxford University Press.

Adriaan Buyserd also recommends Prof. Garton Ash’s “groundbreaking” website and the New Europe-wide policy magazine

©OECD Observer No 252, November 2005

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