COVID-19 Reminds Us of the Government’s Perpetual Communication Flaws

It is in extraordinary times that weaknesses truly come to the fore. During the COVID-19 pandemic, such vulnerabilities have been quite evident in the communication between the government and the public. In Serbia, the government has notified the public on pandemic-related matters in newfound ways – by publishing online critical decisions on measures aimed at taming the coronavirus outbreak and by holding regular media briefings. Despite these developments, however, the state’s limitations are clearly on display. The pandemic has reminded us that the Serbian government still needs to correct structural issues or persistent habits that lead to inadequate informing of the public.

CEP’s National PAR Monitor for Serbia 2017/2018 and SIGMA’s 2017 Monitoring Report already highlighted many of these flaws. Both publications criticised the Serbian government for a tendency towards insufficient transparency. The government, for example, publishes annual work reports or decisions from its sessions irregularly, regardless of whether there is any legal obligation to do so. The inaccessible manner it has of presenting information is also a problem. Bureaucratic language and dense texts often act as obstacles to citizens, with government content frequently unintelligible for the wider public. Open data sources, seen as key to building trust in decision making, are also not available for much of the government’s work. Some of these issues are perpetuated even during the coronavirus crisis.

More cohesion and less confusion are needed in online communication

In the wake of the coronavirus, there has been some change to the government’s approach to online communication. The government, for instance, built a website detailing information about COVID-19 and also released data on basic statistics about the virus. Both undertakings display easily digestible, regular updates of the basic information needed by citizens. Serbia’s Official Gazette also includes a separate section with a list of regulations, measures and decisions adopted during the state of emergency. This makes it easier to follow all the coronavirus-related decisions made during these extraordinary times. Measures in previous, more regular, circumstances were not as clearly and predictably disclosed. Furthermore, the government website itself includes a collection of useful links in its COVID-19 section and key institutions feature prominent banners on their homepages that link to important information. This all indicates a degree of transparency and citizen-friendliness not previously observed.

However, these advancements were the minimum required from the government and do not overshadow other important flaws in communication. One such weakness is the state’s scattered approach to dispensing information. A single website for all government institutions would present a much more consistent and unified method of providing information. Instead, there are many sources of important COVID-19 information spread across a multitude of government-related websites. This has made it difficult for citizens to quickly locate relevant and reliable data. If a member of the public wanted to discover which shops were open for people over the age of 65, for instance, they would have had to have already known that such information could be found on the official websites of the government or Ministry of Trade.[1] Such essential information was not available on the COVID-19 webpage, which would be the most intuitive place to look first.[2] The overall result of this situation is that searching for coronavirus-related data can be more time consuming and complicated than it has to be.

There are also occasions where the government was (and is still) not fully summarising information for its citizens. The COVID-19 section of the Official Gazette is one such instance. It presents no summaries or simplifications of enacted legislative measures for the average citizen, leaving them to trawl though and interpret the droves of legal acts themselves.[3] This stops them from being able to quickly locate their desired information, which would be a citizen’s primary intention in using the webpage.

The state of emergency was a time, as well, in which the citizens should have benefitted from greater online use. The national eGovernment portal advertised a few new e-services related to the crisis, such as access to certificates providing freedom of movement during curfews. The portal did not, however, have a section specifically concerning the pandemic where the state could advise citizens on how and where to access disrupted governmental services.[4] A development such as this would have greatly streamlined user experience in a period of tremendous instability.

All of this sharply contrasted with the actions of other countries such as New Zealand, where the government grouped relevant information on one website and went beyond basic requirements in informing its citizens. Its main COVID-19 website is an extension of its central government webpage and serves as a one-stop-shop for all services related to the pandemic, such as financial support or healthcare. Notably, unlike the Serbian equivalent, it contains a list summarising measures implemented by the state. Similarly, although has an English page, the Kiwi government provides audio versions of the measures it has taken as well as the option to read through the webpage in 28 different languages.[5] Serbia does not exactly have to follow suit with these measures, but meeting the needs of its own national minorities should have been prioritised too.

Additionally, the lack of a text-to-speech option on the Serbian COVID-19 website or large print options taps into another general fault in governmental communication and services: inadequate accessibility for people with disabilities.[6] A survey in CEP’s aforementioned National PAR Monitor report already revealed before the pandemic that the majority of civil society organisations did not believe e-services were well adjusted to people with disabilities. The inaccessible nature of is particularly noteworthy following the adoption of a governmental strategy for improving the position of people with disabilities in March. This policy document specifically mentioned concerns regarding the accessibility of information for people with disabilities during extraordinary situations.

Unpredictable offline messaging makes citizens feel disconnected

It is worth remembering too that state statistics show that approximately 20% of Serbian households do not have access to the internet. Furthermore, official data reveal that around half of the public are computer illiterate. “Offline” communication, or more traditional means of providing information, is consequently also of grand significance.

The state has made attempts to inform the general population daily in broadcasted press conferences that are attended by scientific and governmental officials. In these events there has been an effort to provide updates on measures and daily statistics related to the pandemic before taking questions from journalists. This does allow for quick insight into the crisis for interested parties. In addition, in contrast to, more traditional means of communication featured additional accommodations for people with disabilities. Sign language interpreters have been used on national television and channels were opened on the messaging app Viber to spread information in more accessible ways.

Nonetheless, the actual messages sent out by the government and the unnecessary confusion they have spread among the public remain a concern. Official announcements have, at times, been unclear and key decisions have been revealed with little notice. The state confirmed only a few hours before its imposition that a curfew would be put in place on 30 April. This restriction of movement covered fewer days than was previously publicly recommended by health officials advising the government. The closure of Nikola Tesla Airport was also done with a similar lack of notice, with a matter of hours between the state announcing it would stop commercial international flights and the action itself. There is a clear need for urgency during pandemics, but such apparent impulsivity chips away at citizens’ preparedness and undermines trust in the government. This is especially so when messages from official sources, which are supposed to speak with one voice, do not seem to align. All of this brings up issues of professionalism in informing the public and the capacities within government to manage communication affairs.

Most importantly, though, the state’s limitations on the flow of information must be questioned. In March, the government stated that it would legally centralise COVID-19-related information and that it would sanction any unauthorised announcements on treating the coronavirus. Separately, in April, it forbade journalists from physically attending press events for health safety reasons, and neglected to grant access to its conferences via remote online participation. Even though these measures were temporary, this centralisation of information and restriction of the press works to cut away at citizens’ trust in the government. It certainly, and understandably, drew a critical response from elements of the media and international organisations as well. The fact that there was a case of a journalist being detained for coronavirus-related reporting only served to exacerbate public outcry on these and other mentioned ill-advised governmental measures.

All things considered, the citizen’s viewpoint both in online and more traditional communication often seems to be ignored. This causes errors in providing information and leaves the public with a sense of feeling disconnected. The studied examples together show that a lack of transparency continues to plague how the state informs the population. Pinpointing these issues may seem like nit-picking during a time of crisis. Yet, it is amid such extraordinary times that fine margins differentiate between appearing as a government that cares for its citizens and appearing as one that does not.

[1] Last checked on 11-15 May 2020.

[2] Last checked on 11-15 May.

[3] Last checked on 11-15 May.

[4] Checked between 23 April and 15 May.

[5] Last checked on 11-15 May.

[6] Last checked on 11-15 May.

Photo: © APA/Harald Schneider, PC Press