Governments rely on the consent and trust of the people to get things done but they need to focus on informing, advocating, persuading and engaging citizens, writes Rob Masters

Communication is one of the key levers of government, alongside legislation, regulation and taxation. 

But a recently released global leaders’ report  shows that communication in government is:
• Rarely understood fully by politicians and policymakers
• Frequently regarded as a tactical, shared service, rather than a strategic function of policy delivery
• Under-skilled in areas such as social media, data analysis, audience segmentation and
citizen engagement
• Seldom used to its full potential.

These key points are important to the global situation of today where the authority of government is being eroded and particularly because of a lack of trust. Only 40% of citizens worldwide trust their government. There is a sense that citizens are beginning to doubt whether government actually can make a difference in their lives, despite what the U.S. President Donald Trump may tweet.

Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concludes that a lack of trust is compromising the willingness of citizens and business to respond to public policies and contribute to a sustainable economic recovery.  

Unsurprising then, the falling levels of trust in government is cited by government leaders in the report as the key issue facing government communicators. They believe a lack of trust is:
•    Limiting cut-through of government messages
•    Inhibiting two-way dialogue
•    Contributing to detachment and disengagement from government
•   Inhibiting the success of policies that depend on behavioural responses from the public. 

To overcome this situation, there is emerging emphasis on purposefully creating dialogue with citizens. Despite many government leaders being against a public consultation process as being a legitimate function of government communication, their communication people believe it is the only way forward to overcome the ‘trust’ situation and to gain ‘buy in’ to governments achieving their policy objectives. 

Governments rely on the consent and trust of the people to get things done. To achieve this, government communication must be focussed on informing, advocating, persuading and engaging citizens.  “The ability to 'push out' information is necessary, albeit deeply insufficient,” says the report. “The willingness and ability to speak with citizens must be coupled with a willingness to listen to them, incorporate their needs and preferences into the policy process, and engage local patterns of influence and trusted sources of information." 

Although there is no single way to engage with the public because of the many communication channels available today, social media must be included in any engagement process.

This is again illustrated by U.S. President Trump in his use of tweets. He sees it as an important channel for his messages to his supporters so that he can bypass newspapers, TV and radio and then condemn them as generators of ‘fake news’ when they report on what he says. However, he complements this with his meetings with the ‘faithful’ to again get his message out.

This process sets up the pathway to the ‘participatory model’ of communication. The important distinct is that the communication process must move beyond governments telling people what they are doing and how, but to ‘why’ they are doing it. Again, the Trump model is an illustration of this – his ‘why’ is to ‘make America great again’. Another example is in Victoria where the government’s law and order clamp down on youth crime is to make ‘the community feel safe again’. 

Explaining the ‘why’ course of action can help minimise resistance from people and allows them to engage with the issue and, in the engagement process, it encourages them to explore or resolve issues. The individual feels ‘connected’ to the issue, as well as with their fellow participants and gives them a sense of ‘ownership’ in its resolution. It also makes a significant contribution to the restoration of ‘trust’ for governments to help them solve many of the issues facing them and to achieving policy objectives.

However, within the ‘ownership’ process, governments must never concede their ‘right’ to making the final decision on an issue… the same as Trump does with his ‘Executive Orders’. Unfortunately, the Trump model of engagement, does not address the ‘trust’ issue.

Robert Masters is Director of Wells Haslem’s Melbourne affiliate, RMK + Associates