Is honesty the best policy? How local policymakers communicate Covid risks
Updated: Mar 8
As a local government official, communicating the risks of COVID-19 to constituents can be like walking a tight rope. On the one hand, overstating the dangers could cause local economic stagnation, runs on consumer products, or panicked parents. On the other hand, downplaying the risks could undermine efforts to mitigate the spread of the disease, especially if some constituents are already prone to ignoring calls to take preventive measures. And Covid itself has become a nationally politicized issue where audiences will inevitably interpret your message based on their assumptions about your partisanship.
For all these reasons, local government officials often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when tasked with communicating and enforcing national, state, and local COVID-19 policies for their communities. And yet, our recent national survey of local policymakers found that local officials across both major political parties agree on the best approach — constituents deserve the truth about COVID-19. Specifically, over seventy percent of respondents said that neither understating nor overstating the risks associated with COVID-19 was acceptable.
However, if pressed, more local policymakers felt that erring on the side of overstating was more acceptable than understating. Only 10% of respondents said understating the risks was acceptable, while a modestly higher 18% of respondents said that overstating the risks might be acceptable under some circumstances. (While this willingness to err on the side of overstating rather than understating was found for Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, this tendency was most pronounced among our Democrat respondents.)
At its foundation, the question of how to communicate Covid risks raises a more fundamental question about how different policymakers approach governing. As a policymaker, do you trust the public to act “rationally” if you provide them the unvarnished truth, or do you need to curate your message to achieve some socially desirable goal?
Some respondents said that, while lying was never appropriate, one can and should think carefully about when and how information is revealed to constituents. As one local official in Utah said, “Avoiding panic should and does inform how facts and data are presented and expressed but do not justify lying.”
Other respondents were more categorical. As one policymaker from Michigan put it, “Treat people with respect and dignity. Give them the best available data and information.” Another local policymaker from North Dakota—critical of other policymakers who might choose a different approach—simply said: “If one feels the need to not be honest, then they have no business in public office.”
Still other respondents emphasized the long-run risks of engaging in deceptive behavior. “The truth eventually comes out,” said another local policymaker in New York. “Such a lie weakens your credibility in the next crisis.” Another respondent from South Dakota, when asked about the possibility of intentional misrepresentation, simply stated, “It will always back fire.”
Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, local policymakers are still faced with challenges on how to communicate with their communities. It is hard enough that the facts change week to week: the scientific understanding of Covid continues to evolve and guidelines from state and federal agencies continue to change. Despite this already complicated and fraught situation, one thing is nonetheless clear: the vast majority of local policymakers are doing their best to convey to their communities the best available facts as they understand them.
The research underlying this blog was built on data from two national random-sample surveys of local policymakers, fielded in July 2021 and October 2021, respectively. The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more.
Below are the two survey questions used in the figure:
Many have also suggested that prominent public officials knowingly downplayed the severity of the pandemic, with the purpose of preventing public panic. In your opinion, how acceptable was this behavior? Completely acceptable, Mostly acceptable, Somewhat acceptable, Somewhat unacceptable, Mostly unacceptable, Completely unacceptable, I do not believe that public officials knowingly understated the severity of the pandemic
Many have also suggested that prominent public officials knowingly overstated the severity of the pandemic, with the purpose of increasing citizen caution and safety. In your opinion, how acceptable was this behavior? Completely acceptable, Mostly acceptable, Somewhat acceptable, Somewhat unacceptable, Mostly unacceptable, Completely unacceptable, I do not believe that public officials knowingly overstated the severity of the pandemic