Seldom has the critical role of public communication been made so evident as in recent years. Revolutionary changes in the information ecosystem have pushed governments to reinvent how they produce, share and consume information and data to remain authoritative sources in the crowded and highly sophisticated world of today’s mass media. This transformation has occurred in parallel to a series of international crises that undermined people’s finances and health, with direct consequences on their trust in the ability of the state to protect them and ensure their well-being.

In such a complex context, the provision of accurate and timely information has proven to be critical for policy implementation and compliance, and a prerequisite for transparent, accountable, and responsive public administrations. When conducted strategically and in the public interest, communication is a pillar of democracy; yet, it continues to be under-valued and under-utilised as an instrument for achieving governance objectives.

Furthermore, while online communication and social media platforms are opening vast opportunities for governments and individuals alike to connect and engage, they have also enabled the proliferation of misleading and harmful content at unprecedented scale and speed. Ill-motivated actors, harnessing the same strategic communication tactics, have sought to manipulate information and mislead voters. In response, emerging government practices to debunk prominent rumours, pre-empt misinformation and fill information voids have demonstrated the central contribution of public communication to mitigating the spread and consequences of mis- and disinformation. These interventions are a key part of a holistic response to building societal resilience to the risks posed by harmful and misleading content.

The urgent and global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to re-think, almost overnight, the governance arrangements that underpin their use of public communication. The crisis has required governments to provide up-to-date and targeted information to help citizens adapt their behaviour as needed. They have also had to work more efficiently and collaboratively both within the administration and with the private sector and civil society organisations to deliver compelling and informative messages, quell fears, and dispel mis- and disinformation. While the crisis has been an accelerator of government transformation leading to many innovative communication practices, it also underlined numerous gaps as well as the urgent need to reform this function and up-skill public communicators.

To support communicators and senior decision-makers in this endeavour, the OECD’s first report on public communication makes the case for a more strategic use of communication as an instrument of government; an enabler of the open government principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation; and as a tool for reinforcing democracy. The report provides an extensive mapping of related trends, gaps, good practices and lessons learned, by building on the Organisation’s established work in the area of open and innovative government reforms, and in particular the OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government, and drawing on in-depth discussions with the members of its Working Party on Open Government and Experts Group on Public Communication.

Thanks to the data collected through the first OECD survey on public communication, targeting centres of government and ministries of health, the publication provides a baseline assessment and an evidence-based examination of relevant policies and practices across 46 countries and 63 institutions, in addition to the European Commission. The choice of these respondents allows the reader to gain both an overview of whole-of-government communication and a sectoral perspective from a key service-providing ministry. While the OECD launched the surveys prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the publication includes information that sheds light on practices developed in response to the pandemic, with some examples highlighted throughout the report.

As the COVID-19 crisis has proven that public-interest-driven communication can save lives, a focus on supporting the professionalisation of this function and establishing international standards based on the sharing of good practices will help stimulate a forward-looking and innovative reform agenda. Only through such an ambitious path can communication fully contribute to improved policies and services, greater citizen trust, and, ultimately, stronger democracies.

This document was sent to and benefited from comments by members of the OECD Working Party on Open Government, Health Committee, Network of Senior Officials from Centres of Government and Experts Group on Public Communication on 15 October 2021 and was approved by the OECD’s Public Governance Committee via written procedure on 19 November 2021 and prepared for publication by the OECD Secretariat.

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