Covid-19 policies: how does political trust make a difference in responding to a common crisis ?
For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Dr Theofanis Exadaktylos from the University of Surrey, in England. Bonjour, Theofanis!
Theofanis, you are associate professor of European politics, and together with three colleagues you are about to publish a book on “Policy Styles and Trust in the Age of Pandemics”. Can you let us know more about it?
As we all know, since 2020, there has been a wide variety of policy responses by national governments. Some governments immediately and proactively took measures to stop the virus spread, some waited for clarity to decide their course of action and others downplayed the severity of the threat, continuing life as if nothing had happened.
So what how does your research explain these differences?
It’s explained by national ‘policy styles’. And in responding to crises, this policy styles are correlated with the political trust expressed by citizens.
Crises are moments of flux and extreme uncertainty. They expose vulnerabilities and frequently prompt political leaders to think outside the box to reassure citizens they are still in control. But the degree of freedom also depends on the administrative capacity their countries have, and the way problems and solutions are conceived in the national context. Effectively, policy makers inherit commitments, institutional arrangements, ways of doing things and norms that form a country’s policy style.
How does “trust” play into this?
Compliance to any public policy is linked to the levels of political trust within a country and, policy makers need to have a good estimation of how high or low that trust is. When governments are faced with new challenges they turn to “institutional memory”. Some governments are better in anticipating problems while others only react; in some countries consensus is required in decision-making whereas in others a top-down approach is the norm.
Citizens’ expectations are important. Pandemics require a public that makes conscious choices to comply to measures issued by a government. Lack of voluntary compliance will lead to more stringent measures, including fines and strict lockdowns. Compliance to measures also depends on whether they are perceived as ‘imposed’ or ‘organically developed’, especially in the context of democratic societies.
Countries like Denmark or Sweden have a more legitimate and efficient public administration system, and citizens tend to trust the bureaucracy of their country, compared to Greece or Italy for example. If trustworthiness and legitimacy are low, the capacity of a government to do its job is decreased, and implementing any measure is quite hard.
Legitimacy and political trust are even more important in the context of a pandemic when non-elected officials expand their decision-making roles. In Britain, Hungary and Poland, for example, experts have been at the receiving end of targeted blame.
How does it work in countries that have a high level of trust in their government?
In systems with more inclusive processes, like in Sweden, high trust magnifies the capacity of a government to act, leading to decentralised responses.
Conversely, in systems with lower policy capacity and lower inclusiveness, citizens lack faith in the system and expect central authority to take over. Greece is a good example for that. Lack of trust weakens the capacity of a government to act and the capacity of citizens to behave in a way they see fit.
These are the extremes. What happens in countries that are ‘in between’?
When high capacity coincides with low trust, the tendency is not to trust policymakers but put faith in the capacity of the state, for example, in the health system, to handle the crises. Hence policymakers will pursue more centrifugal responses to avoid taking the blame. This was the case in Britain, where policy makers tried to diffuse responsibility away from the central government in London.
When on the other hand, there is high trust but lower policy capacity (for geographic or demographic reasons), policymakers and citizens know that the health system may not cope if left without strong political direction. In this case, policymakers may choose a centripetal response because it allows more control over outcomes. This is the example of Norway where the government managed to acquire emergency powers to react, contrary to its inclusive policy style.
So what’s your conclusion after two years?
There is a vast variety of policy response across Europe , not only for the effectiveness of measures in containing spread, casualties and economic impact, but also in the timings and ways that measures were eased, dropped or re-introduced.
And we are not out of the woods yet. The pandemic is still evolving today with unknown outcomes. Therefore, whatever the national policy styles and levels of political trust, we should hope that national governments and citizens not only learn from past experiences but also from each other.
Thank you very much, Theofanis, for sharing your research with us. We’ll put a link to your book on the website.
“Ideas on Europe” will be back next week. We will welcome Joanna Ciesielska-Klikowska, from the University of Lodz, in Poland.