Trust, but notify


The following article is authored by Martino Maggetti.


  • Growing considerations of trust in science must be placed in a greater context of trust in governance and regulatory agencies.
  • Research finds that citizens have almost unconditionally high levels of trust in autonomous regulatory agencies, which are essentially shielded from the crisis of credibility in policy expertise.
  • High levels of trust enable cooperation, but a risk of overly trusting regulatory agencies is possible.
  • Systems of active vigilance should be created to ensure that regulatory agencies function in the public’s best interests.

Considerations of trust in science have been expanding globally, especially in relation to COVID-19 and climate change. Such discussions should also be understood within the greater context of trust in governance and regulatory agencies. Regulatory agencies are public sector organisations entrusted with specialised regulatory competencies that typically enjoy a certain degree of autonomy from the government (Maggetti et al., 2022). In the last decades, governments have delegated crucial regulatory powers to these agencies in numerous areas, ranging from telecom and finance to food safety, therapeutic products, privacy, and environmental protection (Jordana et al., 2011). As a result, they acquired wide-ranging regulatory tasks, such as conformity assessments, licensing, rule refinement, standard setting, monitoring, adjudication, and sanctioning in case of non-compliance. How do citizens perceive the trustworthiness of these important and yet secluded organisations? One of the first empirical results of the TiGRE project is that citizens’ trust in regulatory agencies is almost unconditionally high. As figure 1 shows, there are some variations across the investigated countries, but the mean trust levels never fall below the neutral midpoint of 4.0, measured on a simplified trust scale (Grimmelikhuijsen and Knies, 2017). What is more, as illustrated by figure 2, there are barely any differences between three key sectors – data protection, finance, and food safety – where trust plays a particularly central role for the functioning of the regulatory regime (Six and Verhoest, 2017). 


Fig. 1 

Fig. 2 

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Citizens’ trust in regulatory agencies per country (means, N = 5765) 

Citizens’ trust in regulatory agencies per sector (means, N = 5765) 


This finding is remarkable and puzzling at the same time. These high trust levels appear to be at odds with reports of lower or declining trust in political institutions and in policy experts (Levi and Stoker, 2000, Hetherington, 2005, Foa and Mounk, 2017, Hosking, 2019).  


How should we interpret this discrepancy? It is possible that regulatory agencies embody a technocratic form of political authority (Caramani, 2017) that is perceived as trustworthy by ordinary citizens almost by default – as a by-product of their reputation for unique expertise within the policy process and as protectors of the public good (Carpenter, 2010). Their lack of direct accountability towards citizens may also imply that the latter feel less compelled to pass a judgement upon the actions of regulators. At the same time, regulatory agencies appear to be shielded by the epistemic crisis that sweeps the credibility of policy expertise – and challenges the use of scientific knowledge in the policy process – in a context of polarisation and in the era of digital political communication (McCoy et al., 2018, Dahlgren, 2018). Relying on their formal independence from elected politicians and from the regulated industries, regulators are able to carry on their strategy of depoliticisation (Flinders and Buller, 2006) and persist as taken-for-granted institutions. 


On the one hand, these high levels of trust in regulators are reassuring.  Trust is considered a pre-condition for virtuous governance as it reduces social complexity (Luhmann, 1979) and enables cooperation (Misztal, 2013). On the other hand, while our evidence does not point to excessive or blind trust, a risk of overly trusting regulatory agencies is looming. Democratic institutions are built around the idea that citizens’ trust in those in power should not be unlimited. Jeremy Bentham famously asked: “Who[m] ought we to distrust, if not those to whom is committed great authority, with great temptations to abuse it?” (Bentham, 1999 [1816]:37). In a similar vein, Benjamin Constant argued that: “All constitutions are acts of distrust: for if we believed that power would never encroach, we would not need constitutions, nor chambers, nor repressive laws” (Constant, 1992 [1829]:53).  Some measure of critical vigilance is necessary to ensure the well-functioning of regulatory regimes as well.  


This is even more important because the extent to which regulators are trustworthy in practices and in outcomes (Levi, 2019) remains somewhat elusive. Yet, it is warranted “to trust only those who are trustworthy – not everyone, including the patently untrustworthy” (Hardin, 1999:39). As a matter of fact, regulation is not a purely technocratic mode of governance based on expert knowledge. Rather, it is a political process, insofar as it incorporates conflicting interests, and it implies distributional concerns. As such, regulation may help in reducing inequalities, or, conversely, may participate in reproducing or even reinforcing them, such as in the case of market regulation. Respectively, it could be instrumental for protecting citizens from risks, or further exposing them to hazards, as for safety and environmental regulation. 


This is not to say that citizens must be wary of regulatory agencies. Nonetheless, it is worth promoting active vigilance rather than blind trust and uncritical attitudes. The challenge is to find a balanced way to encourage trust while also upholding vigilance, through regulation by information, an appropriate level of transparency, and effective participatory opportunities. As active participants to regulatory regimes, informed citizens can play a crucial role when mobilising around issues of concern by ringing fire alarms, issuing warnings, and notifying dysfunctions, drifts, deficits, and disasters to regulators and to the political institutions that are expected to keep them in check. 



This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870722 (TiGRE). 


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Martino Maggetti is an associate professor of political science at the Institute of Political Studies of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. His research interests focus on regulatory governance and comparative public policy. He is the principal investigator of the project Trust in Governance and Regulation in Europe (TiGRE), funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme (2020-2024).


The facts, ideas and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO or any of its partners and stakeholders and do not commit nor imply any responsibility thereof. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this piece do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.