The need for civic engagement and clarity at Covid-19

Author: Manu Steens

Two articles on the website of the VRT appealed to me. They block the seriousness of the situation:

– Microbiologist Herman Goossens: “Insufficient Security Council measures, we are heading for disaster if we don’t act quickly”.

– Antwerp governor pleads: “Please limit your social contact to your family or choose two regular friends”.

The governor also said in the interview, “Be tougher on yourself than what’s allowed.”

This is not simple: it requires engagement and participation from the people.

Then, of course, the question arises: “What is engagement?”. And what are decisive factors at the government that demands engagement from the citizen?

According to John C. Besley (in Chapter22: ‘Public Engagement in Risk-Related Decision Making’ in ‘The SAGE Handbook of Risk Communication’), the fact that public engagement can involve a huge variety of activities is a stumbling block to transform available information into knowledge.

According to Creighton, public engagement is “the process by which public concerns, needs and values are incorporated into governmental and corporate decision making. It is two-way communication and interaction, with the overall goal of better decisions that are supported by the public”.

There may also be mechanisms whereby citizens have some degree of control over decisions. This then is a continuum that goes from agreeing with what the government wants up to becoming citizens who have a meaningful voice, and are recognized for this by the government.

An important parameter, according to the literature, to get participation is the confidence citizens have in the decision makers, as well as the more they know about the situation in which they have to participate. For the latter, a pervasive communication with press conferences and much more than that is a permanent necessity.

In our country at the moment, it seems that it is mainly the citizens agreement with what is decided that takes place. There are very few citizens initiatives. This seems to indicate that the citizens look to the government with the question “tell us”. But also with the question “save us, because we do not know the solution ourselves”. Decisions can therefore be tough, and as long as they are made authentically and offer the solution in the long term (if necessary), the citizen will continue to agree.

The solutions must also be clear.

This implementation of measures always requires clarity. How do you do this? Goal: defeat the virus. Operational measures are therefore necessary. How do you clearly describe the goals and actions operationally and why do you want to do that? In his book “Your Best Year Ever” Hyatt writes about a well-known method: SMARTER. How can we apply that to the actions we want to roll out?

SMARTER stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Risky, Time-keyed, Exciting, Relevant.

The idea is that we first have to write down the goals. In this crisis, there is only one goal. To defeat the disease. But that in itself is not SMARTER.

This could be a proposal:

Specific: get the number of infections to zero to prevent a third wave. We do this by complying with the six golden measures and limiting our social contacts to our own family and otherwise to a maximum of two friends a week. The intention is to get the R-value back below “1”. However, all this is not specific enough. Therefore, to make things operational and specific, there are the MB and the FAQ. Unfortunately, in the past it has already been shown that these will always be incomplete, because one cannot summarize the lives of 11 million people on about 40 pages of paper. But the rules are there, both in the letter and in the spirit, and people are asked to take their own responsibility with common sense when their situation is not literally described.

Measurable: through testing and contact tracing, no new infections are detected. This is a criterion that clearly states when the downward tail of the new infections reaches zero. This is only possible if indeed we get the R-value under “1”. This is also measurable, through the numbers of for example hospitals that are passed on to the government. But measurable also means that the police must be able to check compliance. Such as leaving your details when visiting a cafe or restaurant. An example of what is very measurable here is a name tag.

Actionable: I translate this here as feasible and useful: it’s about what we do. Here the FAQs are useful again. The six golden rules are not difficult to follow. But the question was asked whether it would not be better to limit ourselves to much smaller bubbles. That in itself is not actionable: it is not useful, for example, to measure your social contacts. Better is “Find a maximum of 2 friends per week instead of 15”. This is useful because it is based on a useful verb: search. Not more generic, often unclear statements with verbs like “are” or “have”. So choice of verb is very important in communication.

Risky. Ugh. Normally it says something like “Reasonable”. But using the word Reasonable makes that we often do not challenge ourselves enough to set the bar at a high enough level. Reasonableness encourages you to make it easy with quickly achievable objectives. A bubble with 15 friends is easily achievable. It seems reasonable. But it’s not. It’s certainly not a challenge, but more than that, it’s a number where people stop counting. 15 seems infinite, so we’ll do whatever. And before you know it, you’ve got a lot more contacts than 15 and the infections are rising. Meeting just two good friends is much more challenging. You have to make choices, decide who you prefer and why. It’s more confrontational, the bar is much higher to realize it.

Time-keyed: the measure of the bubble is the clearest example here. Two friends, who are allowed to change per week. But it doesn’t always have to be time intervals. They can also be frequencies. This concept also divides the goals into “achievement goals” and “habit goals”. An example of an achievement goal is that you buy name tags to leave behind in a café that you visited to be available for testing and tracing. An example of a habit goal is that you always put on a mask when travelling by train. The goals should become a habit as much as possible. Then for many people it goes by itself.

Exciting: “What in God’s name is exciting about such goals and measures?” Actually, internal motivation is meant here. It is an important characteristic that people are intrinsically motivated to make them achieve their goals. Good health is an example of this. I assume that everyone loves themselves enough to find their own health important enough to be motivated. So contrary to what the word suggests, it is the feeling of concern that is important here. Worrying about your neighbor and yourself. Let that concern inspire you to take good care of yourself, your family, and your friends and neighbors.

Relevant: this is here with regard to the crisis situation (including other people) and also your personal health interests. This criteria is the bottom line. Effective goals and measures are relevant. It has everything to do with giving direction. This gives you the opportunity to check your gut feeling before committing to the measures. It is here that everything can go wrong if we are not careful. There are four criteria for measures you can check here: is the measure proportional, prudent, efficient, and effective? Note: what is “proportional” doesn’t necessarily have to be easy, it’s more in the sense of “necessary”. This criterion of relevance gives the necessary pressure in a crisis like this: the pressure can be social, financial, professional, … whatever. This helps to explain why challenging a crisis like this is no easy task. It is therefore essential not to oppose each other. Be stricter on yourself than what is asked for.

More information:

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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