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Building trust in a time of COVID-19


During a pandemic, maintaining the public’s confidence in government is a matter of survival. And right now, Americans’ faith in institutions is scraping historic lows.

Along with efforts to develop vaccines and treatments, the coronavirus should prompt an effort reminiscent of the Manhattan Project to rebuild trust in our country’s institutions. That mission must be a bipartisan national priority, regardless of who wins the election in November — and it should begin immediately. 

What would a national strategy to restore trust in government entail? 

First, Americans trust institutions that function. Several of ours are lacking. Confidence in the military and postal service remain relatively high because most Americans believe they operate effectively. In contrast, the bulk of the U.S. government is relying on institutions designed in the 19th century and technology from the 20th century to solve the challenges we face today. The results are predictable and painful. 

Harnessed correctly, technology could go a long way toward fixing this challenge. There are some promising templates for building public institutions that are fit for this purpose. Countries as different as India and Estonia have developed high-quality digital citizenship platforms. These systems provide a foundation for services ranging from voting and taxes to public benefits and health care. 

The U.S. could create open-source digital platforms that would dramatically improve the flow of information, resources and services between institutions and individuals, for a fraction of the price it is planning to spend on medical supplies to combat COVID-19. Citizen data wallets would streamline the portability of health records. Digital IDs and asset tracking platforms could speed the transfer of supplies to the jurisdictions and individuals that need them most. Such advancements must be coupled with security measures to protect against data breaches and misuse, and officials must be transparent about the protocols in place. These new “rails” would help federal, state and local agencies provide a far more effective response to the coronavirus. 

Second, as digitized institutions come online, they should be hardwired to provide information to the public. Good data saves lives. 

In Andhra Pradesh, which has some of the best public data infrastructure in the Global South, health advocates and officials saw that some districts were experiencing a spike in blood markers for early onset diabetes. Their response — diverting brown rice to replace the white rice normally distributed to residents in need — prevented thousands of cases of diabetes and untold human suffering. When used responsibly, open data is powerful medicine. 

Third, citizens need to have confidence that information held by the government won’t be manipulated. Historically, many nations have struggled with this challenge. It’s a growing concern in the U.S.

When the country of Georgia wanted to overcome a legacy of Soviet-era government data falsification, it adopted a solution to digitally lock down key records such as property titles so that even a corrupt official with full access to the system couldn’t erase critical information. Citizens should demand that all government agencies incorporate similar accountability mechanisms.

The task of rebuilding confidence in our institutions is too important to leave it up to the government alone. It will depend on effective oversight and advice from civil society and the private sector. Much of the legitimacy of these efforts will be a function of whether those neglected by and estranged from our current institutions see themselves represented in the process to develop solutions. 

Reversing the collapse of confidence in government may require significant long-term investment, but doing nothing is far more expensive. The costs of the status quo are staggering. The technology to solve these problems exists. The question is whether we will succeed in making it accessible. Doing so will help counter the overwhelming — and accurate — sentiment that our systems just aren’t working.

As much as we wish it were not the case, reviving the country’s confidence in institutions is about to become a matter of life and death. The White House’s attempted use of disinformation to curb a market sell-off and the news that government health experts must filter their statements through the Office of the Vice President won’t help. 

Replenishing our national reservoir of trust is not only critical to protecting Americans from COVID-19, but also to irrigating our efforts in every other field of endeavor. It’s time to leverage a new generation of tools to repair and restore the public’s confidence in our institutions and tackle this challenge with the urgency it deserves. Going forward, our lives depend on it. 

Tomicah Tillemann is executive director of the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) at New America. He served as a senior adviser to former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. 

Tags CDC Coronavirus COVID-19 Government Health care Hillary Clinton John Kerry Pandemic Telehealth

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