Politicians heading all governments – from the most authoritarian to the most democratic – like to paint a rosy picture of life under their governance. Whether the rosy picture is true or not, in their eyes, pretending all is good is how they stay in power.
What the public often forgets, however, is that very few people who draw a government pay check are politicians. The vast majority of public sector workers are non-partisan, career officials whose job it is to ensure the basics of everyday life work. Their job is to make sure that the lights stay on, that your drinking water isn’t contaminated, that roads get plowed after a snow storm, that the building code is enforced so buildings don’t collapse on a windy day, and that passenger jets don’t fall out of the sky (think the Boeing 737 Max).
Career public officials are experts in what they do and real problems can arise when politicians try to tell them how to do their job. This is especially true when politicians interfere with public officials for purely self-interested political reasons.
Unfortunately, this is happening in spades with the coronavirus pandemic.
Public health officials are the key players in the global fight against the coronavius pandemic. This is why in most democratic societies, public health officials have historically had a mandate to talk directly to the public, unlike most public servants. The reason for their political independence is rooted in the fact that in times of public health crises – such as the one we are now facing with the coronavirus – it is crucial that the public receive timely and accurate information from qualified medical authorities. Lives literally depend on the public getting the straight goods on an infectious epidemic and there is a long tradition in democratic countries such as Canada and the U.S. of allowing Medical Officers of Health to take the lead in keeping the public informed during public health crises – without the politicians distorting and spinning the message.
In fact, the updates by public health officials in times of crisis are a model of effective communication – no spin, just the facts. Politicians could learn a lot from these officials on how to communicate important information to the public.
Just the facts, of course, is not how it works in countries such as China and Iran. In those countries, there have been many reports of frustrated local medical authorities being told by political leaders in the first weeks of the outbreak, to not go public with their knowledge of the spread of the coronavirus in their communities.
Iran and China are now paying the price of their governments’ early stage inaction in the form of thousands of deaths.
But the U.S. is stumbling, too. And for many of the same reasons as China and Iran.