Expert voices Vol 24, No. 04 - April 2020

Trust in institutions in time of a global pandemic

When a crisis strikes, trust in public institutions can mean the difference between life and death. The success or failure of our fight against the current coronavirus pandemic hinges on whether people heed their governments’ recommendations, warnings and public health announcements. How can institutions build the trust and authority necessary to guide the public through the times of crisis? We asked Abdelhak Saihi, member of the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration.

Most of our modern-day institutions are not used to dealing with crises of such magnitude as the COVID-19 pandemic. How were they able to adapt so quickly?

“Historically, multiple and diverse crises have rattled and bewildered public institutions, often forcing them to live up to their responsibilities. Some have used their experiences in the face of crises as a springboard to evolve, just like a living organism. By questioning their working methods, crises are often an opportunity for reflection and adaptation. The best practice for dealing with crises comes from facing a crisis with flexibility and intelligence. How institutions achieve that is a very important question, worthy of further studies and analysis.”

What qualities should public institutions have to respond to a crisis effectively?

“I would highlight three main elements: Firstly, a public institution should be open and focused on the citizen. It should take concrete steps to demonstrate its good will and build trust.

Secondly, the institution should be strict about its quality control to ensure an optimal management of quality services for the public.

Thirdly, a public institution should continuously adapt the kinds of services rendered to the citizens as requirements of optimal management evolve.

Fulfilling these conditions, a public institution is able to gain the confidence of its citizens and provide them with quality services.”

How can institutions build trust and rapport with the people they serve?

“Gaining the trust of the public is a two-way street. If a public institution is accustomed to top-down communication, it should work on becoming more attuned to the voices of the public and their grievances.

To build trust of the citizens it serves, an institution should support them, respond to their concerns and attend to their real needs – within its area of responsibility.

The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic can become a learning experience, from which public institutions must draw the necessary lessons.”

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