Participatory governance is crucial in low trust societies

Public communication is only effective when people trust their governments. Throughout Europe governments are facing polarisation in society and lack of trust in institutions.

From a recent survey amongst members of the Club of Venice, an informal network of communication managers all across Europe, we learn that data driven strategies, low trust society and fake news are issues that they perceive to impact their organizations most in the near future.

Only honest participation by the people and better two way communication can counter this complex relationship between government and society. It’s up to government agencies to communicate better and really engage with stakeholders and people in their society.

Various examples of civic participation in different European countries already take place. The Occitanie region in south western France, for instance, had organised a convention of 100 citizens on the subject of climate change. More than 400 proposals were put on the table and most of them were adopted by the authorities in the Green agenda for the region. And with respect to the Conference on the Future of Europe, the European institutions have organised many paneldiscussions, focusgroups and debates with European citizens. It would be advisable to consider a long term relationship with the participants of these dialogues in order to ask them frequently for their feedback on policy developments. This could really lead to more interactive and participatory governance.

We have done specific research on the challenges that municipalities in the Netherlands are facing, than we see – again – that polarization and decreased trust in government are high on the agenda. To counter these trends, municipalities are trying to become more responsive in the sense that they work more and more with concrete missions, for instance on climate change of sustainable mobility. And on these missions they are trying to involve and consult more and more civil society.

These trends of course have effect on the role of communication teams. When participation and communication are on top of mind, the communication professionals should deliver on these important aspects. Firstly they need really to become a strategic partner of the management of their organisations in order to advise them on more communicative ways of governance. Especially the use of data and digitisation are crucial in order to respond immediately to voices in society. An interesting example of this trend is the concept of the newsroom, which has been installed in many larger municipalities in the Netherlands over the last years.

The newsroom is a physical and online multidisciplinary place at the heart of the organization. It gives a daily analysis of major trends in society and provides direct recommendations to policy responsables within the organization, based on data and analysis, in order to give them the opportunity to directly contact or engage in dialogue with citizens. It also gives input for an offensive and proactive communication strategy. The content can be used for different channels (both internally and externally). The motto would be: no advice with issue analysis.

In this newsroom the different roles of a modern communication department are gathered. Think for instance about analysts and monitoring specialists who really bring in the outside world. And of course social media experts and data analysts are there to make communications to the outside world more effective. These professionals will work closely with spokespersons, communication advisors, responsible policy officers and aldermen of the municipality. It is a very interesting example of a more data driven organization of a communication team. 


Further professionalization of communication teams

Participants of the Club of Venice survey indicated that they expect an increase in communication activities, budget and size of their teams in the coming years. They are confronted with a rapid growing demand for communication, not only from their own organisations, but also from society. It also means that participatory governance should be moved higher up the agenda and that there should be “no policy without participation.” That requires investments in further professionalisation of communications teams throughout Europe.

To conclude we could underline that strategic communication and participatory governance are important for communication teams all across Europe in order to counter distrust of people in their institutions. To achieve public consent and to counter low trust society stakeholder and civilian participation and engagement is crucial. These challenges require capacity building and an investment in the size of communication teams. The exchange of best practices and dialogue on how to strengthen the position of communication within our organizations needs further attention. It goed without saying that sharing knowledge and good practices on a European scale should be enhanced.


Robert Wester, Managing Director, Berenschot-EU – February 2022