3 ways to build youth trust and engagement in public institutions

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Aleksander Dardeli, Executive Vice President, IREX


  • Trust in public institutions it is at an all time low, and among youths it has been declining for years.
  • Young people understand the power of protest but need access to institutions in order to create change from within.
  • We outline three ways to help them realize their ambitions to change the world.

At the start of 2021, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that, across the globe, trust in public institutions continued its downward spiral. Public institutions temporarily emerged as the most trusted in May 2020 compared to NGOs, business, and media. That was when people expected them to contain COVID-19 and resuscitate economies. But now that trust bubble has burst.

As Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, warned the UN Security Council in September, the breakdown in public trust “increases fragility and has the potential to drive instability in settings where people perceive authorities have not addressed the pandemic effectively or have not been transparent about its impact.”

We should reserve particular concern for people from their mid-teens to late-20s who perceive – rightly or wrongly – that public institutions have little ability or inclination to improve their own welfare. The more young people around the world feel disconnected from and unsupported by public institutions, the more likely their cynicism will increase. Their cynicism makes our public institutions more vulnerable and less effective.

Winning back their trust will require a concerted effort by public institutions to include more young people in their ranks, listen more closely to their concerns and provide services that address their specific needs.

Young generations must also understand that while protesting against ineffective or corrupt institutions is a civic duty, so is engaging with and participating in them. Rebuilding trust in public institutions requires small, day-to-day efforts that make a difference in how they deliver service and interact with their constituents.

The decline in youth trust didn’t happen overnight. Youth participation in public institutions has been dismally low for years. Turnout at the ballot box among 18 to 25 year olds lags far behind other age cohorts in democratic countries. Globally, only about 6% of the parliamentarians are under 35 years old.

Image: UN.

According to the OECD, overall trust in OECD governments dropped by about 5 percentage points between 2007 and 2012. By 2019, trust levels had rebounded for all age groups, including youth. But in 20 out of 37 of those countries, youth trust in national governments, relative to the total populations, has declined since 2006.

How do we stop and reverse the slide in youth trust?

1. Harness their ambitions to change the world

In the early 1960s the US created the Peace Corps not only to advance international development through volunteers, but also to brand the US, through people-to-people exchanges, as a noble giant. Along the way, like many programmes run by the Corporation for Community Service, the Peace Corps also transformed the lives of those who volunteered for the service.

But so much more could be done with these programmes to bring in more young people, and to reinforce the public perception that they are indispensable to problems that matter the most to youth. More funding would be a good way to help.

2. Focus on local engagement

People of all ages tend to have more experience with local government than any other level of government because it addresses their most immediate needs such as: education, public transportation, law enforcement, public health, zoning and much more.

But these services function with little or no youth participation. We need to find ways for young people to engage with these institutions to increase the benefit they provide to communities. They would do well to emulate at the sub-national levels the work of Ichmache>Politik, a project of the German Federal Youth Council (Deutscher Bundesjugendring – DBJR) that uses digital methods (ePartool) to support young people’s participation in policy making at a national level.

3. Rekindle an interest in volunteering

Young people are more inclined than any other age group to choose protest to get their message across to public institutions. That’s a good thing; deployed properly, protest advances society. At the same time, we also need to give young people an opportunity to move from protest to a “here’s what I can do to get it done” mindset. We need to move them from the outside to the inside.

Many societies, especially American society, prize volunteerism, and people of all ages volunteer their time to causes ranging from food drives for the poor to efforts to mitigate natural disasters. We know that community service instills a sense of civic responsibility in students and predicts the probability of volunteering after graduation.

But too many societies undervalue volunteering in public institutions that are intended to benefit society or a community. Volunteer service to a public institution has the potential to fuel greater benefits to a community or society.

For instance, the OECD points to a social movement that goes by the name “Fridays for Future” which has attracted more than 13 milllion students and others calling for European governments’ action on climate change. That has – from the outside – helped change policy. The Danish government has gone a step further and brought young voices to the inside of policy making through the creation of a Youth Climate Council, which advises the Ministry of Environment in the areas of climate change, environmental protection, farming and food production.

The challenge of youth distrust in public institutions will require these and many more efforts to tune in and engage with a critical segment of every country’s population. The first of many steps in that direction is for leaders of those institutions to recognize the size and gravity of this looming challenge, acknowledge it and, sooner than later, put energy, resources, and authentic passion into turning it around.

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