“The times, they are a-changin’”, as the old song goes.
We are moving past the days where governments tell, and people listen. More and more, countries want to involve citizens in decision-making, drafting policies, and service delivery.
But Nadine Smith, Global Director of Communications at the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), describes how governments, both from developing and developed worlds, are “struggling with how to communicate” with their citizens “in an age when it should be easier than ever to do that”.
If governments do not have the right support from their citizens, and the relationship breaks down – or worse, was never there to begin with – it “gets harder and harder to communicate”, Smith tells GovInsider.
The right relationships
CPI launched the Finding Legitimacy programme in May this year to kickstart conversations around legitimacy in government. With the programme, Smith wants to increase the awareness of “legitimacy in action”, where there is truly genuine engagement between a government and its citizens.
“Ultimately, we need governments to work with people; we need those ideas to really make an impact and improve lives,” says Smith, a former civil servant who has clocked up 18 years’ experience in senior communications positions with the UK government.
“Ultimately, we need governments to work with people; we need those ideas to really make an impact and improve lives.”
It is important to note that this concept of legitimacy goes beyond merely building trust, as the “end goal for all governments should be not to make sure that everybody trusts government,” Smith says, but “that people’s lives have actually improved”. She adds that people should “feel that they have a say in how their lives have improved”.
Where it’s working
Officials should “keep a finger on the pulse of what society feels and needs” through citizen engagement initiatives and draw from those ideas and views to better understand the people they serve.
From the citizens’ point of view, they “need to feel that government is genuinely interested and engaging with them on the sort of topics that are important to them”, Smith believes.
For example, in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it a priority to have conversations with people – “particularly, minority groups and communities” – and involve them with decision-making around infrastructure. “He came up with kind of a new framework for institutions to communicate and engage with people,” Smith says.
Meanwhile, South Australia’s government “took a good look at how they can ensure that young people participate in the engagement process” and released a guide for government agencies on how to communicate and engage with young people, she adds.
There are examples in the US – specifically, New York, where there was “one of the biggest city-wide consultations” that invited citizens to digitally input their votes and thoughts for the development of their city, in what is called ‘participatory budgeting’. “That is real citizen engagement and participation in action, on very practical, real things in their lives, everyday, using digital,” explains Smith.
“That is real citizen engagement and participation in action, on very practical, real things in their lives, everyday, using digital.”
Taiwan, on the other hand, has “great examples of really innovative digital means of communication”. AP reported that the country has appointed “civic hacker” Audrey Tang as digital minister to better connect with younger voters.
“She’s actually somebody who’s got the background as a civic hacker,” Smith says, “using her expertise to more directly involve the public in policymaking.” She adds that the minister will also be countering fake news.
Smith wants to hear from governments everywhere on how they are working together with citizens to create impact, and invites agencies to share their successes with her.
“We make no judgments about how, where or what type of system or regime is working it – if it’s working and it’s having the right impact, then it’s something we want to hear about,” she adds.
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