Imagine: the world is gripped by a global health crisis caused by a mysterious virus spreading death and devastating communities. As scientists struggle to find a treatment, disinformation proves as infectious as the virus. National governments refuse to work together, cover up key information, marginalize affected communities, and contradict themselves, each other and science. Citizens look to their government for answers, but the muddled messaging and lack of sustainable progress diminish trust between citizens and their government, resulting in lower rates of public compliance with health and safety protocols.
While this vignette presents clear present day parallels, it was written with the HIV-AIDS epidemic in mind. A similar public health pattern has played out many times over: the 1918 flu pandemic, HIV-AIDS, Swine flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola and now the COVID-19 pandemic. These global health crises have one lesson in common: trust is an essential ingredient for functioning governments and democracies. When governments lose the trust of their citizens, they lose their ability to effectively set and enforce rules on everything from health safety to the administration of elections.
As the glue that keeps democracy together, political trust is necessary
to the effectiveness of all areas of democratic governance.
To “win back” citizen trust, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recommends governments should, among other things, strengthen their responsiveness. After all, responsiveness to citizens is a pillar of governments’ mandate to serve its citizens. It is a two-way interaction, a feedback loop, of governments listening to citizens and incorporating this information into its decision-making and/or directly responding back to this information. This is why NDI is partnering with Feedback Labs to pilot a new trust building methodology to complement NDI’s long standing history of promoting openness and transparency.
Feedback Labs is a community-building organization that was launched in 2014 by eight founding NGOs (Ashoka, GlobalGiving, FrontlineSMS, GroundTruth Initiative, Keystone Accountability, Twaweza ni sisi, Ushahidi and Center for Global Development) as a way to incorporate citizen feedback loops to co-create citizen-driven solutions into responsive and responsible development practices. This methodology, known as constituent voice, transforms citizens’ feedback into performance data, so that government officials are able to learn through a dialogue with the citizens that they serve. Since constituents are the people who are affected by public policies, they are also the experts on what they want and what works best for them.
Since its inception, Feedback Labs has continued to refine this method. They have adapted it to strengthen democratic governance by building trust between communities by “closing feedback loops.” According to the World Bank, closing feedback loops is also required to meet citizens’ expectations for change created by their engagement; to use their feedback to create better outcomes; and to justify the engagement. When there are no two-way communications between citizens and governments, parliaments for example, do not acknowledge and incorporate the communicated citizens’ priorities into legislation. However, when parliaments include citizens’ feedback in their work, the foundation of trust in government is laid.
Intentionally closing feedback loops is an innovative approach to improving public trust, which makes Feedback Labs a great partner in achieving this critical need. In many countries around the world, even before the current pandemic, trust in government found itself at an all-time low. Today, at the height of the global health crisis, NDI has watched as authoritarian-opportunist governments have abused the protocols around COVID-19 as a means to further restrict civic space and to limit authentic relationships between citizens and government. Now more than ever it is incumbent upon governments and parliaments to use radical transparency and proper communication platforms in their work, particularly in efforts to disseminate public health information and to control the spread of COVID-19. Because when political trust is low, it gives rise to populism and anti-system parties. Good governance is the counterweight to illiberal influences. Trust, coupled with radical transparency, is the means by which governments can fight back to threats like disinformation.
As the glue that keeps democracy together, political trust is necessary to the effectiveness of all areas of good governance. NDI is looking forward to its continued partnership with Feedback Labs, and to work with its partner parliaments to develop trusting relationships between them and the citizens they serve.
Author: Victoria Welborn is a Program Manager on the Democratic Governance and Democracy and Technology teams at NDI.