5 key findings around PR and communications in the government sector

Rapid digital disruption, fragmented groups and intensified political polarisation risk undermining governments’ efforts to effectively engage with citizens. While governments worldwide recognise the benefits of communicating with citizens, they are unsure about how best to devolve decision making to the public.

As a result, governments around the world miss an important opportunity to rebuild trust with those they govern, according to “The Leaders’ Report: increasing trust through citizen engagement” report by WPP’s government and public sector practice.

Here are five findings around government communications

1. Willingness to engage citizens

Government communication professionals are now increasingly attempting to include citizens in the decision-making process, with about 78% of respondents surveyed delivering some form of citizen engagement activity in the past 12 months.

The importance placed on citizen engagement was driven by the perception that it helped generate support and compliance for policy. Three quarters of respondents (75%) recognise that engagement done well can create more support for a policy and rebuild trust. Meanwhile, 80% believe that policies developed through citizen engagement were more likely to lead to increased compliance. Communication leaders also stated that when done well citizen engagement improves public perceptions of transparency and accountability, and can help build overall trust in government.

2. Lack of confidence

The three primary barriers to using citizen engagement in organisations are risk aversion among politicians and policymakers; lack of willingness to devolve power and influence to citizens; and uncertainty about how to prepare for and manage any potential unforeseen consequences of increasing citizen engagement. This includes citizens making unrealistic or impractical requests.

According to WPP’s report, the growing unpredictability of public, and the ability of citizens to share information and amplify points of view at speed, have understandably made governments cautious.

A majority (77%) of communication professionals stated that engagement activities in their organisations are generally conducted at lower levels. While this can potentially manage the risk of ceding decision-making power to citizens, it also reduces the potential for increasing citizen agency, transparency and trust.

The report also found that citizen engagement in many cases is not moving beyond the level of soliciting opinions, adding that lower-order activities do not offer the same potential to influence policy or engage audiences. Survey respondents said that such “listening exercises” are only influencing policy around 50% of the time.

This means that for much of the time, communicators are gathering opinions that will have no tangible impact on policy development or delivery. Fear of risk among politicians and policymakers means that communication professionals are not receiving the backing and buy-in they require to deliver higher-order citizen engagement, WPP’s report said.

The research also suggests that government communication professionals and their policymaking colleagues lack confidence in their ability to effectively explain complex public issues to citizens in a simplified yet meaningful way.

3. Lack of commitment

About 61% of respondents said that organisations should only run citizen engagement programmes if they are committed to acting on the opinions of the public. Only 8% of respondents said that their organisation always commits to acting on the opinions that the public give before running a citizen engagement programme.

WPP’s report found that the confidence government communicators have in the potential of citizen engagement is not matched by governments overall. Politicians and policymakers are unwilling to commit to integrating engagement activities into policy development and delivery, or to implementing the findings of citizen engagement activities. This suggests there are attitudinal barriers to delivering effective engagement activities in government.

Meanwhile, 46% of respondents said their organisation had the insights and research to evaluate the effectiveness of their programming. Such challenges around implementation and securing commitment to act are exacerbated by a lack of evidence and evaluation. Communication leaders are frustrated at their inability to answer questions including “What does good look like?”, “What’s the best form of citizen engagement and what are others doing?” and “How can I integrate citizen engagement into policy development?”

In the absence of KPIs against which authorities can measure success, WPP’s report said that participation data such as completion or dropout rates is taking the place of outcome-focused evaluation. While these proxies can offer some value in terms of refining and improving processes, they do not reveal whether activities are enriching policy; whether citizens feel that government is responsive; or whether it is building trust.

4. Under-supported and under-funded

The continued struggle to secure resource was identified as a major barrier to delivering more effective citizen engagement. More than half of respondents (56%) said they needed to invest more in citizen engagement, while 28% said their organisation lacked the tools, skills and resources to carry out citizen engagement programming.

Senior communication leaders pointed to the fact that the of majority engagement activities were being run out of communication teams. However, these teams were often reliant on other parts of their organisation for funding.

Major challenges to delivering more effective citizen engagement were finding the right balance between the needs of citizens, stakeholders and decision makers in engagement activities; internal barriers around bureaucracy; risk aversion and buy-in; and budget.

Only 39% of respondents felt engagement activities were coordinated across the organisation. The lack of commitment on the part of public organisations to driving citizen engagement activities into policy development and delivery means that many programmes are stumbling or falling short along the way, the report said.

5. Under-delivering on citizen expectations

Only 36% of respondents surveyed said that affected citizens could always get involved in engagement activities. Meanwhile, 73% of respondents were not always sure on the level of influence they were giving citizens, while 85% of respondents stated that citizens are not always clear on their level of influence.

Communication professionals surveyed said that poorly-executed citizen engagement that undercommits or does not affect policy development could have serious counterproductive effects. Also, failure to be both user-led and outcome-focused – by prioritising those most affected – can lead to the tyranny of the majority. Where the minority most affected by an issue has the majority’s view imposed upon them.

If engagement activities do not involve those most affected, WPP’s report said that the impact of these activities is likely to be minimal or, worse still, will add to perceptions that the government is out of touch or only listening to a privileged few. Relevance was also identified as an important issue for professionals. While citizens want to engage on issues that are relevant and meaningful to them, they do not want to be consulted on every issue.

In a statement to Marketing, Michelle Harrison, CEO of WPP Government and Public Sector Practice, said that fragmentation generally increases the need for citizen engagement, especially in Singapore where strategic framework for the research was piloted. She said that the research with both communication leaders and citizens finds that building a core narrative and increasing citizens’ sense of agency become more challenging with more diverse groups, potentially with divergent interests.

“What I think is particularly interesting is some research among citizens that we carried out in Singapore. The country is very much a melting pot of cultures but actually for Singapore the biggest determinants of how connected citizens feel to their government were not ethnicity or income but age and education,” she added.

Harrison also said that technology can be both a bridge and barrier to engaging citizens. In places such as Taiwan, the most effective approaches combine digital with offline engagement to ensure that the government is meaningfully following up on digital activities.

“The key with all engagement activities is to integrate it into actual policy development. Engaging on any platform without following up with citizen and following through with policy development is always likely to backfire and be perceived as a or stunt,” she added.

In general, Harrison said that WPP’s research has found that Southeast Asian countries were generally enthusiastic about the potential of citizen engagement and several of them are already delivering activities at a high level. While there are plenty of areas of improvement for government communication professionals in the region, Harrison said that one main area would be the need for better digital skills.

While citizens are increasingly digitally-savvy, many government communications fall short when it comes to personalisation, and to creating a more emotional or emotive connection, she said. This is because too much time is spent on issuing press releases when communication professionals know that in many Southeast Asian countries, trust in the media is declining.

The report interviewed over 60 government communication leaders and 400 government communicators across 50 countries and six multilateral organisations. It was also supplemented by a survey of 8,000 citizens.

(Photo courtesy: 123RF)

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