Governments paying lip service to citizen engagement, global report warns

Fewer than one in five of those working in government comms in Britain think the views of the electorate are considered when policies are formulated.

Policymakers lack confidence to engage with citizens because of a fear of vocal minorities, the report argues (pic credit: urbazon/Getty Images)
Policymakers lack confidence to engage with citizens because of a fear of vocal minorities, the report argues (pic credit: urbazon/Getty Images)

This is lower than any other part of the world, according to new data that informs a major new global report by WPP examining the issue of government-citizen engagement across 50 countries.

The figures, provided exclusively to PRWeek, reveal that just 19 per cent of government communicators in the UK think the voice of the people is taken into account, compared to the global average of 41 per cent.

British comms professionals are also the least likely in the world to think that they are trusted to act on input from citizens, with 39 per cent holding this view, compared to the global average of 58 per cent.

Pessimistic outlook

Only 38 per cent think their organisations have the right tools and skills needed for engagement, which is lower than the 46 per cent global average.

And just 14 per cent think their organisation always delivers the right kind of citizen engagement, compared to 23 per cent globally.

Two-thirds (66 per cent) believe their organisation’s engagement programmes are effective; however, that is lower than the global average of 73 per cent.

Government communicators in the UK are also less likely to think that you should be obliged to act on the results of such programmes, at 48 per cent versus 54 per cent globally.

Big picture

The statistics have been gathered for the report by WPP’s government and public sector practice, drawing on the views of more than 400 government communicators in 50 countries – including Britain, France, the US, Australia and Singapore - between August and November 2018.

It warns that governments are playing a dangerous game if they continue to play lip service to the idea of involving citizens in their decisions.

The 'Increasing Trust Through Citizen Engagement' report states that the majority of comms professionals appreciate the value of engagement, with 75 per cent believing it can secure more support for a policy, and rebuild trust in government.

Words not matched by deeds

But for all the rhetoric from government about engagement, only eight per cent of respondents said their organisation always commits to acting on the public's opinions before running a citizen-engagement programme.

"The majority of citizen-engagement activities do not alter policy," the report says. "Communication professionals feel that politicians and policymakers within their own organisations lack sufficient confidence to engage with citizens."

It adds: "Fear of overly vocal minorities, special interests and the "tyranny of the majority" were all raised as barriers that inhibit a government's confidence in this area, and also reduce the confidence of citizens that their opinions can make a difference."

Balancing act

Commenting on the findings, Michelle Harrison, chief executive of WPP's government & public sector practice, said: "Government communicators told us that they are walking a tightrope: they must do more with less, while also tackling any perceptions that government is out of touch."

She added: "To rebuild trust, governments must rethink their citizen-engagement strategies and create a meaningful connection with the people they serve by putting them at the heart of policymaking."

The report says there is "widespread recognition" within government comms circles that "politicians and policymakers were worried about the potential risks of greater citizen engagement: populist political sentiment and new technology have formed a potent combination that can allow relatively small groups to become prominent yet unrepresentative voices in society."


It states: "The current state of the profession is one of impasse. Organisations are running citizen-engagement activities more often but failing to use them to help develop and deliver better policy."

The report adds: "The lack of commitment on the part of public organisations to driving citizen engagement activities into policy development and delivery means that many programmes are stumbling or falling short along the way."

Among its recommendations are that governments must make engagement "meaningful" and "commit to acting on the findings" if they want to rebuild, rather than destroy, the trust that people have in them.

But as one senior government comms figure, speaking anonymously in the report, says: "The problem is not that people don't trust governments, but governments don't trust people."

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