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To Gain Public Trust, the Biden White House Should Think Local

Studies show Americans tend to trust their local leaders. The Biden administration should learn from local successes to drive COVID-19 vaccination campaigns and other public communications.

The words “trust” and “government” aren’t typically used in the same sentence unless it’s about how little the government can be trusted — and we can easily argue that the current public health crisis in our country is exacerbated by this lack of trust. In fact, only 20 percent of adults trust the federal government to do the right thing. If the federal government and its representatives are the primary messengers for an initiative, skepticism will abound.

We hear less about the situations where individuals do trust the government. But the same studies that reveal a lack of faith in the federal government also indicate that 71 percent of Americans trust local agencies a great deal or a fair amount. Our federal government should take these findings to heart in its efforts to build a trusted rapport with the American people — both today and in the long run. 

The Biden administration has taken some steps in this direction by appointing former local leaders to federal roles. Former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and former Connecticut Education Commissioner Dr. Miguel Cardona were each appointed to Biden’s cabinet directly from local and state posts. While it’s common for a president to appoint former elected officials to cabinet positions, encouraging those same officials to employ the citizen engagement tactics they used in their local roles isn’t. And what better time to break the mold than during the largest vaccination campaign in history? 

The first phase of vaccine rollout was about distribution — getting shots in the arms of eligible people who wanted it. As I write this, 16.4 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and 29.4 percent has at least one dose. Now that we’re through the first big push, we’re entering a new phase of vaccine distribution: The government’s top priority is no longer reaching those who want to be vaccinated; it’s convincing more reluctant citizens that they should. 

The government has a glaring opportunity to finish strong and usher in a return to normal — but only if they emulate the strategies that have seen success at the local level. Now is the time for the Biden administration to think local. 

Emphasize precise communication

Misleading messaging and lack of communication aren’t unique to the vaccination rollout. Communication for campaigns has traditionally relied on a megaphone (of sorts) and repetition: Say something loudly and often enough, and maybe folks will listen. The cacophonous social media din we all experience now has relegated that strategy to nothing more than a mere tactic. Seventy percent of adults in the U.S. rely on social media for government information at least once a week, but only 11 percent actually trust the information on social platforms. This means that messages will often be glossed over at the very best, or at the worst, misinterpreted. Communications must meet people where they are through a channel that reaches them directly, with a message they can understand. 

It takes the right leaders to understand this approach, and then the savvy to use effective tools to implement it. Digital, direct-to-resident communication is a channel through which the federal government can begin gaining the public’s trust. Too many governments continue to rely on sporadic social media posting as their primary communications tool. By using technologies designed to communicate directly and with empathy, local agencies — like New Mexico and its user-friendly, data-backed vaccine website — can serve as a reliable source of truth. 

Refresh the bench of spokespeople

The right message delivered by the wrong person doesn’t always have the desired effect. My kids will never believe spinach is good for them as long as it’s coming from me, but if their favorite YouTuber says so, it’s a different story — hopefully. 

As such, governments need to consider the messenger when developing communications strategies. A recent Granicus study showed that bulletins citing local community leaders, such as school superintendents and department heads, are more favorable than those citing government leaders or even health-care workers. 

At this point in the pandemic, national figures like Dr. Fauci are inherently political and often polarizing. Whether it’s athletes, celebrities or influencers, the federal government needs to experiment with different voices and find a national version of that local superintendent — trustworthy, relatable spokespeople to share important vaccine information and make it stick. When the right voice is speaking to an individual, and the right evidence is presented, people can — and will — change their minds

Prioritize underserved populations

Preparing (or failing to prepare) underserved populations for the vaccine is just a small piece of a larger problem regarding the government’s prioritization of these largely forgotten, difficult-to-reach communities. The federal government must prioritize engagement with underserved groups to ensure that their needs are being met— for the vaccination, yes, but also beyond COVID-19 for issues like affordable housing, general health care and education. 

We’re starting to see successes as local leaders begin to prioritize these communities for vaccine rollout, as with North Carolina where hospitals are partnering with advocacy organizations to co-host vaccination events and better reach the Black, African American, Hispanic and Latinx communities. But we need more — more partnerships, more prioritization, more engagement — and not just in this time of crisis, but also beyond. 

Scale effective strategies

A rift exists between the federal government and the American people. To mend this relationship, the current administration can learn a thing or two from the leaders who are closer to the public — both literally and figuratively. 

Political parties aside, people want the government to work: to effectively share critical information and provide services consistent with how they purchase items online or deposit checks on their cellphones. But they also need engagement from the federal government that is empathetic and grounded in facts. The Biden administration can achieve both if it stops thinking big and starts thinking local.

Patrick Moore is vice president of business development at Granicus, and was previously chief information officer for the state of Georgia.