Exploring the trust divide in our latest research

by Dr Kevin Macnish - Head of Ethics and Sustainability Consulting
| minute read

In the digital age, people expect their online interactions with government organisations to be efficient, simple and personal. But to have a good online experience you need to trust the service you are using.

In a follow up to last year’s Digital Ethics Outlook, we wanted to further explore public trust in government services in the UK. This year we’ve compared trust in government services with that of financial services, healthcare, retail and social media. With significant developments in publicly available generative artificial intelligence (AI) over the past year, we also sought to find out the perceived impact of, and response to, generative AI – a fundamental factor in citizen trust.

Access via digital technology is rising yet there’s still a digital divide

The results of our survey of 1,000 representative UK citizens show that more people are accessing government services on the internet than last year (65% average compared to 53% last year). However only two of the services we asked about were accessed online by more than half of respondents (driving licenses and passports), followed by tax with a 42% access rate. The remaining nine services we asked about have been used by far fewer people, averaging just 14%.

The groups accessing digital technology the most are those with a higher social-economic status and higher education levels. These results are broadly reflective of our previous findings. There is a clear indication of a digital divide continuing in the UK with no signs of it slowing down.

Uncovering the generational trust divide

Our research shows that the over-65s are the most trusting group, of both people and businesses. 63% of that age group believe that most people are trustworthy, compared to just 37% of those under 25. However, their trust levels in government services are more in line with all other age groups - 28% compared to 25% of those under 25.

While the younger generations use the internet to access government services more than those older age groups, they are generally less trusting (both in terms of competence and morality) of what they see there. However, trust levels seem to be influenced by experience. Those who have used particular services such as student loans, apprenticeships or pensions, tend to be more trusting of those services than those who have not, regardless of age.

The majority of respondents agree that government organisations should use digital and data to provide services. But there remains a high level of scepticism, especially around how data is used by more organisations and whether data is used ethically.

We continue to see low levels of trust in government services - lower than public trust in people or businesses. Creating an ethics by design strategy when designing online services is therefore not just the right thing to do, it is the necessary thing to do. Without this we risk losing public trust and falling behind in the technology world.

Calls for regulation to generative AI

With ChatGPT launching to the public in November 2022, and a wave of other large language models and applications following soon after, there has been significant technical development since our last survey.

A significant majority of respondents (79%) have heard of generative AI, rising to 95% of students. One of the biggest concerns around generative AI we uncovered in the survey was around future job losses (52%). We also saw slightly higher levels of concern from younger respondents, ABs and students, who may understand the technology better or feel the threat to future work more.

Other concerns around generative AI included the possible risk to individual privacy (53%), the potential risk to the future development of society (46%) and the possibility of a high environmental cost (25%).

There’s a clear preference when it comes to regulating this new technology, with 63% of respondents wanting the introduction of government regulation and other legal controls to ensure generative AI is used in an ethical way.

As more services move online, it is critical to close the digital divide to ensure that everyone can benefit from the opportunities that digital services offer. An ethics by design strategy for online services is important if services want to build and maintain public trust.

Read the Digital Ethics Outlook here

If you’d like to talk to someone about how to manage ethics within your business, please get in touch with Kevin Macnish.




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