Trust and COVID-19

Trust and COVID-19

on April 20, 2020

Photo by Hello I’m Nik ? on Unsplash

Trust is central to the containment of the COVID-19 virus. Governments need their citizens to trust that their strategies are going to work, and really will benefit vulnerable people and society as a whole. Citizens need to believe that these strategies are trustworthy to commit to the actions required, which for many will come at great personal cost.

But our judgement on who and what we trust, and how that relates to our inclination to comply with the COVID guidance, is personal, complex and nuanced. Personal experience, cultural context, political affiliation, perceptions of risk and benefit and even genetics and body chemistry can all affect where we place our trust.

This seems daunting. But embracing this complexity with understanding and empathy and focusing on the things you can do something about, armed with this understanding, is the critical starting point. Here are some of the key factors which can help in the earning of trust and avoidance of distrust which relate to government lockdown strategies and communications styles in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.

The 10 ‘drivers’ of trust & distrust

Unusually, scholars seem to broadly agree on the qualities of individuals and institutions which invite trust and distrust — these are about the values and competencies displayed. They are familiar concepts. Their familiarity may mean we underestimate their importance. These are not abstract concepts or academic theories, but describe what fundamentally matters to us as human beings— psychologically and sociologically.

TIGTech — 10 Drivers of Trust

The trust drivers and COVID-19 responses:

Psychology shows we are more likely to forgive errors of competence than errors of values — the major causes of distrust are almost always based on a breach of these values drivers. And the earning of trust more likely to result from values alignment than competence alone. So, for reasons of space, I am going to focus on the values drivers here, particularly in relation to government communications styles and strategies.

1. Intent— a relentless focus on the public good

Your intent and motivation and how that relates to me and the public good is perhaps the critical driver of trust.

Getting the right balance of the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, and particularly their effects on the vulnerable, is a near-impossible task. Only a dedicated, proactive and transparent focus on the public good is likely to deliver fair, workable solutions and the trust of citizens.

Actions by governments perceived as not in the public interest are significant drivers of distrust — for example, lack of timely response to the virus for ideological or political reasons; where political priorities trump public health or where financial concerns are prioritised over the welfare of workers or citizens. Donald Trump’s truly astonishing decision to withdraw funding from the WHO at the height of crisis, seems the ultimate demonstration of acting with self-interest and not in the public interest. His trust ratings are falling even amongst supporters, though lack of confidence on other trust drivers (honesty, openness, consistency, effectiveness) are also part of that judgement.

This is particularly true where these actions are at odds with the views of trusted groups, such as disaster response experts and scientists with relevant expertise. They are seen as independent, impartial with no axe to grind and focused on the public good and not political capital. The Edelman Trust Barometer COVID Special research report indicates that 85% of people across the world think ‘we need to hear more from scientists and less from politicians.

The UK government previously shared airtime with senior scientists, but has currently stepped back from this, in favour of ‘’talking head’ style briefings from ministers. Keeping messages simple to help citizens comply, is understood to be part of the rational for this, but trust does not ensue from the repetition of simple slogans. Furthermore, trust analysis shows people respond very differently to information from independent trusted sources, rather than those they trust least — which still, according to Edelman, are politicians.

Making the unavoidable trade-offs between public health and economic impacts is traumatising for all those concerned. The public interest is the compass to help guide actions and decision-making. Use self-reflection tools, foresight, modelling and listening and co-creating directly with the groups affected to assess positive and negative impacts for different groups in society, when designing responses.

Politicians may need to step back and let the more trusted sources — such as health experts, national and international health authorities and scientists take a little more of limelight.

2. Inclusion and respect — be human and involve citizens

We are more likely to trust governance when we can see we are respected, our views and values count and we have agency in shaping outcomes.

Perhaps the single most important finding of our Trust project is this need to respect and take seriously the views of others, (including, perhaps especially, those who’s opinions seem wrong or that we don’t agree with). This is particularly important in responding effectively to early warnings of problems — perhaps one of the most salutory lessons of COVID-19 is the difficulties some leaders have had in taking seriously the early warnings that the virus may be significant. (This is common to almost all disasters. More to come on trust and the psychology of ignoring early warnings in a TIGTech follow-on project)

A human, empathetic approach which demonstrates respect has been a quality shared by some of the most admired and successful leaders in this crisis. (Who in the main also happen to be women). Forbes explores and contrasts this approach with the less effective, macho strongarm tactics of leaders such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Obrador, Modi, Duterte, Orban, Putin, Netanyahu.

But respect comes in different forms — embracing the complexity of people’s starting points and considering different approaches for different groups and perspectives is one. A better and more empathetic understanding of human responses and motivations is another — some examples here from Nuffield Council on Bioethics member Melanie Challenger.

Though I am nervous of the way behavioural sciences may be relied upon beyond their capacity to predict in the crisis, I revert often to Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman suggestion: “Don’t try to persuade — understand the source of resistance and address that”.

The notion of citizens having agency in decision-making as a driver of both effectiveness and trust in outcomes is also important, but controversial. “The fundamental view of citizens is of them being not very bright, not very willing, not very able, helpful or productive,” says Professor Beth Noveck, director of TheGovLab at New York University. She starts from a pragmatic standpoint, proposing that citizens are a wasted resource that policymakers can engage to design effective governance. Others, such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics argue that in designing their responses to the virus, governments have ‘a moral duty to involve those who are affected; to engage with the communities that they represent”.

The importance of this sense of agency is not lost on political leaders — those crafting the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan for the the UK’s Leave Brexit campaign knew that only too well. In his essay The Agency Equation , Jon Alexander of New Citizenship Project argues that large numbers of people are contributing to social movements and democratic innovations (particularly now) ‘precisely because they offer us genuine agency to shape the world we live in: because humans are creatures who need to feel agency.’

There has been an incredible flourishing of grass roots responses to the virus with people wanting to contribute, help each other and rise to the challenges, for example of production of much needed personal protection equipment, helping each other, virtual protests and information sharing.

Some are sponsored by governments, but most are not. This feels like the most important time of all for governments to be innovative and involve citizens, accessing knowledge and giving them agency, particularly in debating the ethical dilemmas, designing solutions and shaping outcomes which can be trusted.

This is a step to far for many. But as a start, perhaps more pragmatic engagement may be attempted — such as co-creating better compliance communications with citizens. Gaining a better understanding of the different rationales we give ourselves for non-compliance and what works and doesn’t for different social groups will be very useful. So why not get citizen’s first-hand knowledge in the mix?

Listening to and respecting the views and values of citizens is an important driver of trust. Clear, open, honest and respectful communications are the starting point.

‘Hackathons’ to find IT solutions for the crisis are blossoming in almost every country— these could be mirrored in bringing citizens together to consider solutions to design containment strategies, explore the moral trade-offs and ethical dilemmas — particularly as lockdowns are gradually lifted.

The UK’s RSA (Royal Society of Arts — I am a fellow) has suggested a Citizen’s Convention for the Transition’. — this could also include on-line deliberative platforms to complement it, such as the excellent vTaiwan initiative, and also consider the contribution of younger and older and medically vulnerable people specifically perhaps?

Help with communications may be a great step off point. For example, in straw poll of my son’s teenage friends, I asked what would have made them take the guidance more seriously and earlier. The answer: funky infographics and statistics they could share on social media on what will happen if they don’t stay home. Our government’s ‘man from the ministry’ approach on mainstream TV (which they don’t watch) is less effective with those who’s respect for authority is limited!

This, from New Zealand was the one he and I thought most effective — we were surprised there were so few around.

More funky infographics on the potential impact of staying home may aid compliance

3. Openness — practice ‘radical transparency’

A key driver of distrust is the belief (and often the reality) that institutions are secretive, aloof and the decision-making processes opaque.

Openness and transparency are essential drivers of trust in a fast-moving crisis, as South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha explained about their approach — currently the most successful of any country:

‘The key to our success has been absolute transparency with the public — sharing every detail of how this virus is evolving, how it is spreading and what the government is doing about it, warts and all.

Total openness has also been a feature of the Singapore Government’s approach. Particularly interesting is its use of Collective Intelligence and technology. A Covid-19 Dashboard “allows Singapore residents to see every known infection case, the street where the person lives and works, which hospital they got admitted to, the average recovery time and the network connections between infections. Despite concerns about potential privacy infringements, the Singapore government has taken the approach that openness about infections is the best way to help people make decisions and manage anxiety about what is happening.”

Conversely, an increasing lack of transparency is the stimulus for a steep decline in trust in the UK government approach, drawing criticism from many quarters.

The UK’s Financial Times joins many others, including scientists, NGOs and other mainstream media in questioning the government’s approach and calling for greater transparencyt“The public can understand more than slogans, and accepts that errors will occur. It deserves clear explanations of failures, and how they will be remedied. Obfuscation will, over time, sap approval.”

Leaders feel they need to look like they are in charge and often believe that opening up about what is not working will make them look weak and not in control. Research says otherwise. Leaders who open up and make themselves accountable for their actions are more likely to earn the trust of others.

But it is genuinely challenging, nerve-wracking and appears risky to be very open, particularly in situations like this in which citizens are looking to governments for consistent leadership and competence. But confident, trusted leaders say when they are uncertain, or don’t have answers. They don’t fudge, hedge or fake certainty. But then they do go back and get answers and rectify problems — communications is only part of the solution!

4. Honesty — Be truthful, sincere and own up to mistakes

Honesty and integrity (lack of corruption) are considered by the OECD in their Trust and Public Policy report to perhaps be the most important driver of trust and distrust in public institutions globally.

Inspirational leaders of such institutions are authentic, they listen and respond honestly. They don’t lean on convoluted official language for their authority and don’t hide mistakes or concerns. Trust in the honest, human, straight-talking approach of German chancellor Angela Merkel is cited as a significant reason why Germans are more assiduous in obeying lockdown instructions (and even, potentially, a part of why their death toll is lower.) New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Denmark’s Mette Frederickson and the Netherlands Mark Rutte have all been very honest, direct and human in their communications and are widely respected, and trusted, specifically because of it.

International research into citizens’ beliefs in their government’s response to COVID-19 ranks countries on various factors, including ‘How untruthful to do you think your country’s government has been about the Coronavirus outbreak’. Some of the results are surprising — and somehow not — notably, the US ranking alongside Russia and Venezuela as perceived as the most untruthful. Again, too early to correlate these findings against the effectiveness of the strategy or compliance statistics, but fascinating nonetheless to see the US strategy (which seems to breach most trust drivers) to be seen by it’s citizens to be so noticeably untruthful.

In times of extreme uncertainty such as this, mistakes will happen and people understand this. But time and again trust is lost and problems arise, not from a mistake, but from the cover up, or contorted attempts to divert attention or rationalise it as something else.

Be straight, authentic and honest. Don’t be evasive or conceal the true state of affairs. Share why there is a problem and what you are doing about rectifying the problem and be open about the potential negative effects. Then do something about it!

OECD Trust metrics have been used by many institutions, such as the UK’s Food Standards Agency. They have demonstrated over time that trust in institutions can even increase despite significant problems if the response is honest, open and timely, with explanations about what went wrong and how the problem will be rectified.

5. Fairness — acknowledge and respond

Unfairness is one of the most powerful drivers of distrust. ‘It’s not fair’ we wail, even as small children and feel its lack keenly. But when a process or outcome is seen as fair, it helps earns our trust, even when we personally may not benefit from the result.

The COVID-19 virus and the impacts of the lockdown will affect some people dramatically more than others. The poorest, the vulnerable, the most marginalised, those without an effective healthcare system or a financial safety net will suffer most. It will be unfair, sometimes catastrophically so, for many. Mitigating this unfairness must be openly part of the prioritisation of resources and responses.

How governments, both individually and collectively understand, acknowledge and proactively respond to the unevenly distributed and unfair impacts brought on by the crisis, will be the most important factor in how history judges them.

Fairness, particularly towards the least fortunate, must be central to the design of containment strategies, approaches to healthcare and economic support packages. Individually and collectively, we’ve not done too well so far. Only time will tell if we have the will and the skill to turn this around.

The important of trust is mentioned often by leaders and the earning of trust needs to be at the heart of Covid-19 responses. But the response to ‘how can we get them to trust us’, focuses on communications. The 10 trust drivers show that whilst this is an important component, behaviour is the key.

 explained trust expert Baroness Onora O’Neill. 


Hilary is director of not-for-profit SocietyInside and co-director of an initiative TIGTech, which seeks to understand how the governance of technology can better earn trust — This article may not represent the views of other team members or the TIGTech Advisory Board.