How the public sector is reinventing its approach in a time of crisis

How the public sector is reinventing its approach in a time of crisis
By Cindy Auten and Scott Wolfson
Cindy Auten
Senior Partner, Engagement and Transformation, ICF Next
Jun 18, 2020

As COVID-19 continues its path of destruction and disruption across the United States, how can agencies best serve constituents in their time of need?

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested and amplified the public sector’s preparedness for a public health crisis. Public sector agencies whose services directly support COVID-19 response have been tasked with amplifying the government’s pandemic response messaging while coordinating closely with other agencies to present a unified narrative to the public. Those whose efforts do not have an immediate or urgent tie to COVID-19 have found it challenging to share critical information in the midst of a lot of commotion. This whole-of-government response has required agencies to pivot on a dime—adjusting outbound messaging, delivering instructions to employees and various stakeholders, updating digital platforms with COVID-19 messaging, and ramping up or even minimizing social media activity—all while employing empathy in communications to show citizens that they understand the challenges at hand.  

Refocusing messaging to meet the moment

In response to the crisis, many agencies successfully shifted their communications strategy and prioritized their messaging in ways that were timely and meaningful to those they serve. For example, take the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC took its core mission and purpose of preventing discrimination in the workplace and aligned its public messaging to the workforce realities of the COVID-19 environment. As the public conversation in recent weeks has shifted to what a return to work would look like, many employee advocates expressed concerns about the potential for discrimination. EEOC responded by calling upon employers to follow the guidance of public health authorities, while adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act and all anti-discrimination laws.

More effective internal and external communications with the 53,000 teleworkers at the Social Security Administration (SSA) resulted in tangible improvements in productivity. According to the American Federation of Government Employees, the SSA has seen an 11% reduction in the backlog of claims and faster response times to calls from recipients in recent months. Even smaller agencies, like the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), saw a need to pivot. The CPSC changed its communications strategy to address what has increasingly become a work-from-home, learn-from-home world. With kids neither in childcare nor at school, CPSC adjusted its messaging very clearly to increase awareness about the greater risk of exposure to household dangers as a new reality in this COVID environment.

Even on the state and local level, we’ve seen shifts. The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) adapted quickly to reallocate transportation resources to aid employers and employees to set themselves up for long-term telework in the lull of the daily commute. These successful pivots in messaging strategy are as much about addressing immediate needs as they are about acknowledging an uncertain future—authentically and transparently—with constituents and employees alike.  

Behavior and dialogue

Words backed up by actions couldn’t be more critical. Foundational to the continuity of government is the ability to bring public health consequences into play when considering operational planning due to disruptive change. For example, effective communicators and leaders at the state and local level are wearing masks and socially distancing (to the extent possible) to signify the importance of taking precautionary measures—and listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci. In short, modeling behavior and leading by example.

Leadership in the new normal also means being there for employees virtually and when they return to work—speaking to their concerns and addressing the long-term effects and impacts of COVID-19. In practice, this may mean taking the time to understand employees’ risk tolerance and perceptions, and addressing changes to the work environment such as temperature checks and redesigned workspaces. Communicating these changes to employees without creating fear or fatigue requires a commitment to transparency, accessibility, and two-way communication between public sector leaders and their constituents.

Communities are seeking leadership and a chance to be seen and heard. For the government, this means meeting those they serve where they are and facilitating conversations with empathy, honesty, and compassion. It’s as much about availability, accessibility, and responsiveness as it is about listening to those being served, having a pulse on what matters to those communities and following through on actions. Our rapidly changing culture requires that leaders create safe spaces for open dialogue and act in a manner that advances the public good.  

Equity and access

The pandemic and the national outcry for an end to systemic racism have exposed longstanding public health and social justice disparities within communities and populations who have been underserved for far too long. Change is long overdue, and change is happening now. As we see a shift in certain state and local budgets aimed at delivering more resources for social and health services in disadvantaged communities, public officials in Houston, Minneapolis, and Boston are speaking out and instituting reforms that will reduce inequities and create meaningful change.  

At the federal level, many agencies have been investing significantly to reach populations that have historically been underserved—and these investments continue as public health officials seek to change behavior to support long-term health. One example of this effort is the National Cancer Institute’s national smoking cessation campaign, whose mobile-enabled efforts saw the first and largest data-driven program to curb tobacco use. Additionally, federal grants and initiatives are being implemented to empower local health systems to bridge the digital divide in urban and rural communities. In certain multicultural and rural populations, access to broadband internet has historically prevented availability to critical healthcare services, such as telehealth consults with healthcare providers. But the pandemic has sped up the push to provide access to telehealth for at-risk populations. The future is now.  

Participation and public trust

Despite the ongoing rift in public sentiment on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the public sector now has a tremendous opportunity to listen, learn, and act. Launching more empathetic communications and engagement strategies to appeal to broad audiences and risk tolerances should not be one-size-fits-all.

Instead, the public sector needs to play the long game. After all, building stronger relationships with constituents takes time—and agencies can establish trust by focusing their messaging efforts on helping constituents make decisions for future well-being while demonstrating an empathetic understanding of today’s challenges. Anticipate needs. Be authentic. Embrace transparency. These are the fundamental building blocks of true participation that goes beyond fulfilling needs and allows public sector agencies to serve as trusted voices in the community.

Redefining public experience for the future

For the public sector, digital engagement has never been more critical. For many audiences, and for many populations, the adoption of—and increased comfort levels with—digital experiences and platforms across communities continues to rise. Rising too, are public expectations. Public agencies need to acknowledge that and go to where their constituents are, meeting them on their terms and opening up new conversations to be effective. Fostering more opportunities for public comment and two-way conversations, whether that’s through virtual town halls or large public online discussions, is crucial to sustaining the new momentum of civic engagement.  

Finally—and perhaps most importantly, as the public voice grows more audible across the spectrum—is the duty of the public sector to listen. To embrace those voices. To be ready with responses. To show compassion during moments of fear and understanding where there is a lack of trust. By having those honest conversations, the public sector can begin to not only solidify the trust that remains, but also to rebuild the trust that may have been lost.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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Meet the authors
  1. Cindy Auten, Senior Partner, Engagement and Transformation, ICF Next
  2. Scott Wolfson

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