No, not an astronomy blog, but one that builds on my last two pieces. I want to explore how narrative and truth in public policy play out with the citizen in the context of the current Covid crisis. And to do so, let me introduce you to Julie.
Julie is a composite character drawn from quite a number of real world and virtual interactions I’ve had or witnessed in recent weeks. She is an ordinary person. She just wants to get on with her life, uninterrupted by the changing tides of national and international events. She’s concerned primarily for her own well-being and that of her family and friends. She wants to be in control of her life.
Julie is the point where public policy is enacted. It exists, in large measure, to serve her. She is the person at the other end of the telescope from political and Civil Service policy makers in Government. And she has found the current crisis particularly difficult to get her head around.
At the outset, and all things considered, she was pretty happy to go along with lockdown. Things had been on a reasonably even keel till then, with just the usual ups and downs of a normal life. When the goal posts were massively shifted by the global pandemic, she was fearful, and therefore willing to go along with pretty much anything the Government told her to do. Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives made perfect sense to her.
Since those early days of the crisis, though, Julie has become increasingly concerned. I’m not going to get into the whole history of test and trace, the timing and administration of lockdown (and subsequent regional lockdowns), the terrible and tragic death toll in the UK and how it compares internationally, the Swedish model versus the rest or even the Barnard Castle episode. Rather, I want to explore how Julie is feeling and thinking.
On the one hand, she is reasonably confident that the NHS has got her back, and that of her friends and family. Generally speaking, she trusts doctors. And yet she is struggling to manage the various flows of information that enter her world.
To begin with, she doesn’t really know anyone who’s had Covid-19. She knows high profile people have had it, with serious consequences – not least Boris Johnson – but in her personal circle there’s nobody. She wonders why this is.
She can’t square the various rules: six outside, but how many is it in a pub or restaurant, a football ground, a passenger aircraft or a theatre? She hears various rumours about the virus, some of which reflect our emerging knowledge about its transmission and impact, some of which are conspiracy hypotheses or misinformation.
All this is reaching Julie through passing conversations and through conventional and social media. As she glances at her smartphone during the course of the day, she is drawn into an endless stream of opinion about the crisis, some well-informed, some appearing to be well-informed and much completely misinformed.
She’s not sure which institutions to trust. No-one around her has anything good to say about any of them, except perhaps the NHS. She knows little of how they work, and she’s heard like everyone else that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. She’s developed her own, institutional version of ‘cancel culture’.
And so there she sits at the centre of her personal universe, her life largely local but now docked with a regional, national and global event. There’s too much happening, too much going through her mind, and rational thought is suffocated by unease. To paraphrase the subtitle of William Davies’ Nervous States, feeling has taken over her world. Julie doesn’t really understand what’s going on, what to believe and what she should do.
What lessons to learn?
At the deepest and broadest level, we need as a nation to equip people to make sense of situations like this – where to look for information, whether to trust it or not, what to expect from public institutions. We need to help people understand the difference between the Office of National Statistics and a conspiratorial online post; and teach critical thinking in its own right, so that individuals are alive to logical fallacies rather than prey to them. Julie doesn’t need to become an epidemiologist or virologist to understand the situation better, but she does need help triaging the flood of information.
As I argued in my previous blog, we need also to reassert the primacy of evidence over narrative. Boris Johnson sought perhaps to do this with his 12 March statement about ‘levelling’ with the British public. Only a week later, though, narrative was back, trumping evidence: ‘I do think, looking at it all, that we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks. And I am absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country’.
We need to rebuild the trust people have in our great institutions, including Government. There are some pretty monumental, democracy-underpinning babies that might get thrown out with the bathwater if populist scepticism were taken to its natural conclusion. At the same time, these institutions can’t just repackage themselves and hope nobody notices that the substance is unchanged – they need to reform, and demonstrably so.
Part of this institutional reform is about engaging with ordinary people to become part of their lives in ways which are seen as supportive rather than overbearing and distant. Focus groups and surveys are the usual avenues these days, but they only skim the surface of how the citizen feels over extended periods of time.
There is something much more fundamental that the policy maker needs to understand, about the visceral nature of many people’s often difficult journey through life. To get to the heart of this, they need to connect with the community, with respect and without patronising, meeting people, shopping where they shop, eating where they eat, going where they go. If you regularly take the bus, for example, you might begin to get a sense of the rhythms and challenges of people’s lives, and those impressions need to live in the policy-maker’s head back in the office.* The policy-maker might be from an ordinary background themselves, and well understand the issues, but they need to nurture that connection, and sometimes it requires an active effort to do so.
It’s almost certainly too late for these steps either to happen or to have an impact in this crisis. The Government has sought a reset through the introduction of tiers, but it’s unlikely it’s made much difference to Julie’s appreciation of the situation. Like the rest of the crisis, though, it has served to underscore the need for Government to forge a new relationship with the citizen. It can’t be an in-group, wary of and distant from an out-group of ordinary people. It needs a mature dialogue with its citizenry, not just three part messages, essential as they are (when they’re the right three parts). And if it can’t always give Julie what she wants, it needs to explain why it hasn’t been able to do so, not as a parent explains to a child, but as an adult treats its peer.
Of course Julie’s just one of 68 million people in the UK, and each is different – in terms of protected characteristics, family history, socio-economic backdrop, regional setting, state of well-being and so on. This isn’t about finding a single template Government needs to serve – it’s about understanding the diversity of a modern liberal democracy, helping it through this crisis, facilitating a transition to whatever the new normal will be and ensuring we’re better prepared for the next time something goes badly wrong.
When Julie looks through the telescope now, it’s all too often the wrong way round; she finds it hard to discern how public policy is working for her. When the policy-maker looks through the telescope, it has to be the right way round. It has to magnify the citizen’s needs and see them in sharp focus. The moment when Julie appears as a barely visible, indistinct, insignificant figure, is when things begin to go badly wrong.
Julie isn’t an inconvenience to policy makers, a real world intrusion into theoretically pure policy. She should be the reason they do what they do, and why they should want to do it well.
*All of the foregoing, of course, within Government social distancing guidelines.