It’s time for Government to start treating the public with the respect we deserve
We started off so well last March, Leo gave his state of the nation address, quoted Seamus Heaney and generally made us feel that all hands were on deck and we were ready to work together to beat this wretched virus.
In fairness, our country was in an unfortunate position as we were right in the middle of leadership negotiations in the aftermath of the general election when the Covid crisis struck and so there is little surprise that our Government lost its way somewhat during the summer. Not only that, nobody expected this crisis would go on for quite so long and few of us expected it to hit us so hard. And yet, the extraordinary lack of leadership that is now evident is difficult to justify.
For good leadership to work, the leaders need to be visible, communication must be clear and everybody needs to feel a sense of purpose. Sadly, our leaders have faltered and we’re now in the position where nobody knows what’s happening, the communication is random and the public feel resentful. There are clear principles of good leadership during a crisis, this is not new territory and history shows us how good and bad leaders operate. Good leaders present credible information in a clear manner, use appropriate communication channels to show what needs to be done and remain visible and available during a crisis.
“Information is the oil that greases an organization and keeps it running smoothly,” says Gene Klann,author of Crisis Leadership. “This is especially true during a crisis.” Random interviews with the Taoiseach in the Daily Mirror and Raidío na Gaeltachta are not appropriate channels to communicate what feels like the worst news since the beginning of the crisis – especially when you need to address the whole population.
Good leadership also ensures that the public feel part of the decision-making process. Business owners who have been hit very hard during this crisis need to know what’s likely to happen so they can plan accordingly. Schools and colleges need to know what’s happening so they can provide adequate support for their students and staff. Parents and children need to know what’s going on so they can manage expectations.
It is disrespectful for the Government to treat us like unruly children who cannot be trusted with the information that will shape our lives. In many ways the government are the parents and we the public are the children. They are leading the situation and we are supposed to follow its direction. Yet this government feels like an absent parent who is avoiding things and not in control of the situation.
This is a national emergency and it needs to be treated like one. The public need to feel they trust the people who are in charge and believe that there is a valid reason for all this sacrifice. When the people lose trust in their leader, it is all too easy for despair to follow. Worse than that, if we suspect that our needs are not being considered, then we become less compliant and civil disobedience can follow.
But this does not need to happen and, although you’d never know it, there is some good news. We are probably closer to the end of the crisis than the Government would have us believe. We will apparently have a million vaccinations done by April – that is a fifth of the population. Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, pointed out on the RTÉ news that not only has there been a downward curve in Ireland for death rates and for cases of infection, but there has also been a six-week trend of positive decline of cases around the world. It could be helpful for the Government to ensure that this good news is communicated rather than presuming we are children and might lose the run of ourselves if we were included in the conversation.
The Government needs to review its communications strategy so that it regains the respect of the public. We don’t need the tail to wag the dog, what we need is some leadership that presents a clear plan of action and some creative thinking that acknowledges that humans cannot cope with extended periods of isolation.
Winston Churchill might have had many faults but he knew how to keep morale high. His regular speeches created a sense of unity in the UK during the war, he didn’t patronise the public nor did he attempt to soft-coat the situation with vague suggestions. Instead, he was clear that the situation was terrible but it was also necessary because the alternative was worse. As Churchill said, “It is not enough that we do our best, sometimes we have to do what’s required.”
Today this government needs to do what’s required, whether it suits them or not. They need to show the public respect and provide some clear communication delivered in an appropriate manner.