The Leaders’ Report 2021: Key Findings – Dependencies Emerging

If relationships within communities – even within families – changed, then it’s no surprise that relationships with government changed during the crisis too. After decades during which Western governments reduced in size and influence over our daily lives, 2020 saw an expanded contract of  public expectations in what government can do for us. After all, if politicians can step in and save a job or a business now, why can’t they do so in the future?

The role of government shifted from being a distant facilitator (where it enacted policies that gave everyone a general framework to live and work within) to a more interventionist deliverer (where it actively provides direct support, services and influence).  As a result, in 2021, citizens are more dependent on their government than they were before the pandemic.

After a year of being treated like children and told what they can and cannot do, citizens now want to reassert their independence.

They want to be treated like adults. But they have also demanded and will continue to demand more support and better outcomes (particularly having seen the enormous sums governments have mobilised in the fight against Covid-19).

Covid-19 caused many private-sector organisations to adopt a more empathetic, personal tone in their communication, with owned media platforms and user-generated content taking a more centre stage. With increased dependency on public authorities for information and support, governments need to both reflect and go beyond this: engaging directly with niche audiences of disadvantaged communities will require both more direct communication channels, and a better understanding of the 10 conscious and subconscious levers of citizen-state engagement that the Practice identified in The Leaders’ Report: increasing trust through citizen engagement. Governments still have much to learn.

An expanding contract of expectations

Governments turned into paymasters, and provided citizens with significantly more practical assistance. The relationship shifted from independence to dependency as economic dislocation was offset with job protection and furlough schemes.

Economic instability led to dramatic increases in the number of citizens seeking government support for unemployment, small business loans, and other business continuity measures. In the US alone, more than 30 million people applied for unemployment insurance benefits by the end of May 2020.

Bursting the trust bubble

Trust in government is central to the success of a wide range of public policies that require citizen support and behavioural responses. At the start of the pandemic, people instinctively turned to their government for protection and assistance. Most governments, in response, demonstrated they could recognise public concerns and respond in a relatively appropriate and transparent way.

In difficult times, competence matters. The unfolding of the pandemic exposed the quality of governance and the competence of leadership to the harsh light of scrutiny. As a result, trust in authority oscillated. When politicians, their advisers and civil servants failed to deliver, they lost credibility and legitimacy with the public, and any initial increase in trust in government was lost. Moving ahead, the depth of the pandemic makes challenging existing models for measuring public sector trust unavoidable.

Depending on digital services

As citizens navigated the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, their government’s ability to engage and serve them effectively online was more important than ever. Public reliance on digital services grew, as did their expectations of what good e-services look like. However, a lack of confidence in delivery and increased demand for support outstripped governments’ capacity to serve. This added strain to governments’ relationships with citizens.

The Government & Public Sector Practice and Adobe noted in 2020 that “trust and confidence in government play a critical role in the responsiveness of citizens. An experience with government online, like the collective of other experiences with government and its leaders, either builds or detracts from this trust equity.”

Citizens have signalled for improvements to be made in the design, relevance, and user experience online, as well as for the greater protection of citizen data.

Defining the boundaries between national and subnational

The pandemic revealed the fault lines that exist between national and subnational administrations. In doing so, it raised pertinent constitutional questions in many countries around subsidiarity and localism.

In countries with a greater tradition of regionalism and cooperation – such as Australia, Canada, and Portugal – the crisis appeared to strengthen collaboration (at least in the short term). However, in big federal nations such as Brazil and the United States, relations between national, state and city governments became more polarised than ever – particularly so where differing political parties were in power.

Frequently, provincial and local governments were responsible for delivering more visible public services, such as home schooling, social care and refuse collection. As a result, many of the most able and agile responses to Covid-19 came not from national governments but from municipal ones.

The challenge of national/sub-national co-ordination was compounded where citizens received messages from different levels of government which appeared to be at odds with each other, and where political considerations appeared to be driving the messaging. How can the tensions between national, provincial and municipal be better handled during recovery?

Protecting for now, preparing for next

Post pandemic, economically-stretched governments will find societal resiliency to  be more important than ever – to protect lives, reduce dependency and save money. Resiliency is also required to help citizens develop techniques to protect against experiences which could be overwhelming, maintain balance during difficult or stressful times, and guard against ongoing mental health difficulties and issues.

Building resilience means communications must be equitable, not equal–some communities need more support than others and should be prioritised accordingly. Governments have a responsibility to reach harder-to-connect-with minority audiences, under-served communities and groups that are more vulnerable and at higher risk.

Implications for government communication

Emergencies have a habit of revealing the true health of the social contract and Covid-19 was no different. It made the relationship between citizen and state more explicit than customary during peacetime.

The public now have a much stronger feeling of being ‘governed’ than prior to the crisis. As most countries are still deployingmeasures that restrict their citizens’ daily lives, this sense of being controlled remains. The acceptability and legitimacy of these restrictions were – and remain – driven by both policy and communication interventions. They highlight the central role that government communication plays in changing behaviour. Yet the integration of policy and communication in many governments remains weak, with too many marketing and campaign interventions failing to adequately link policy objectives with behavioural insights, and thus effect longer-term change.

Communication became even more important to people as physical interaction diminished and social distancing was enacted. Citizens needed communication that made sense of their situation and gave them emotional and technical support to survive the crisis. They will need continued backing to build higher-levels of resilience as the pandemic recedes.

Citizens signalled an expectation that the design, relevance and user experience of online government service will improve. The benefits of creating satisfying digital public experiences and providing data reassurance are twofold: improvements will increase government’s ability to efficiently meet surging demand and, importantly, contribute to building trust in government and its ability to deliver. The management of expectations is now a key responsibility for government communicators.

Building media literacy in Cambodia

Mis- and disinformation can be particularly dangerous during a health crisis: denying citizens of information that might prevent them from getting sick, and stimulating irrational responses and panic to non-existent threats. The Cambodian Government was worried that without the tools and skills to distinguish facts from falsehoods, Cambodians could fall for false claims and ignore advice that might save their lives.

As a result, it announced a range of actions including ‘zero’ tolerance for the spreading of misinformation (including the threat of legal action against those who spread fake news); prioritised media literacy skills as part of the country’s national curriculum; organised training for journalists to help them better understand how the virus spreads; identified and named social media sites and users that spread misinformation; and recommended reliable government and non-government sources of information for the public.

The Government also worked collaboratively with public figures and influencers to guide communities in using information on social media by releasing educational videos on popular platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

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