Policy-makers who engage the public in “collective puzzling” and listen to its feedback will find more room for error as they navigate the pandemic.

The recent news that Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam had revised her opinion to recommend the wearing of non-medical masks was met with a chorus of negative coverage regarding the implications for “public trust.” But research indicates how the public is engaged in policy discussions matters more for the maintenance of trust in public institutions than “getting it right” the first time.

In early April, Tam stated: “The special advisory committee on COVID-19 has come to a consensus that wearing a non-medical mask, even if you have no symptoms, is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you.” In response, The Globe and Mail’s Robyn Urback suggested Tam’s backtracking on non-medical masks (and her prior about-face on travel restrictions) had the potential to damage public trust. She wrote: “if people can’t trust the individuals issuing the directives, they will be far less inclined to follow their instructions.”

In a similar refrain, National Post columnist Colby Cosh argued that “people in Dr. Tam’s position will find it difficult to recoup the goodwill they have clumsily spilled.” Yet, public trust remains high.

Here’s a lesson policy-makers should learn: transparency and engagement with citizen feedback, even if it leads to “flip flopping,” is more likely to increase public trust than erode it. While COVID-19 is a new and novel threat, it is at its heart a policy crisis and as such, it shares some central tenets that shape our understanding of how policy actors should respond.

Periods of crisis are marked by significant problem complexity. Policy actors like Tam and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau experience uncertainty in which both the extent of the potential harm that could occur and the probability of occurrence are undefined.

Officials have projections with respect to the extent of potential harm, but those projections vary dramatically between best- and worst-case scenarios and depend entirely on a shifting understanding of the scope of the problem as they await the return of test results.

Policy-makers themselves carry different cognitive frames that shape how they think about and respond to the COVID-19 problem. Meanwhile, citizens and politicians alike have material, health, family and personal security interests that need to be resolved. But which of these interests needs to be prioritized, and when, is constantly changing.

In the face of this complexity, governments can learn in two ways. First, they can choose to learn primarily from experts (epistemic learning). In a crisis of this nature, we want government to be learning from experts. But as the crisis drags on, epistemic learning is not enough to maintain public trust.

In periods of rapid and transformative change, governments should also engage in the second type of learning: reflexive learning. Reflexive learning describes processes of “collective puzzling” in which decision makers engage with a “wide range of actors and viewpoints” – including citizens – during processes of policy-making.

In reflexive learning, governments need to recognize that the control over knowledge is much more diffuse. While there may be cornerstone institutions (such as the World Health Organization), there is no monopoly over information.

The diffusion of knowledge has increasingly taken hold in the case of COVID-19. Citizens have access to a myriad of sources for their information. While they report relying primarily on broadcast news and government sources, a rapidly evolving scientific response, public databases that track infections (such as the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker), and easy access to learning about policy experiences of other countries (whether it’s on wearing masks, testing extensively, closing borders, or any number of issues), means the public is also learning alongside government in responding to the evolving crisis.

So how does this matter for questions of public trust?

My research with Drs. Heather Millar and Linda White on other complex policy issues indicates that how the public is engaged in policy processes matters.

In periods of uncertainty and in response to significant policy complexity, governments need to prioritize reflexive learning processes. The public needs to be given the opportunity to “puzzle” alongside policy elites.

Involving the public in policy design adds legitimacy to the policy-making process. If citizens can see evidence that their questions and recommendations are being reflected in policy design, they will be more likely to support new policy innovations even when those policy innovations are imperfect.

In responding to this pandemic, every level of government in this country has been rapidly designing innovative policy and then working out the kinks. They have been responding in real time to new data on the spread of the virus, how it operates, who is vulnerable and how best to slow transmission.

Through all of this, they have been learning. They have been learning from experts, and increasingly they have been learning reflexively. Far from being deferential, Canadians have pushed their governments to engage with them directly – both on data and on policy design – and governments have responded.

The face mask about-face is the most recent example, but it is by no means the only one. By early April, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec had all released their internal projections on the potential scope of the COVID-19 threat in response to public pressure for that access. More provinces, and the federal government, have followed suit. This information empowers citizens to better understand the nature of the crisis, where the curve sits in terms of projected outcomes, and puzzle through the appropriate response alongside governments.

On the policy front, provincial governments have introduced a range of policies aimed at responding to citizen concerns: from free childcare for front line workers, temporary rental supports and halts to evictions, and new labour protections for workers required to self-isolate or care for family. Meanwhile, the federal government has made changes several times to its new economic programs in response to public feedback, moving from an initial two-track program that built on Employment Insurance (EI) to the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program. The wage subsidy program was dramatically expanded in response to concerns by small businesses. And, of course, in all this, public health recommendations continue to change.

There have been, and will continue to be, missteps by government. We will soon be entering a challenging next phase in this crisis, as governments put forward their plans and timelines for restarting portions of the economy – balancing those plans with public health. Trust may wane as the full economic and social impact of the crisis comes into clearer view, or as the public begins to chafe under continuing social restrictions.

So far, governments throughout Canada have done a pretty good job engaging the public in policy discussions in a way that has maintained the public trust. They need to continue to do the work communicating with the public to let them be part of the process. That way, there is room for error and trust when government doesn’t “get it right” the first time.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by r.classen.