3. Evidence-based and data-driven public communication

Public communication is no different from any other policy area in that evidence and data are essential to its effectiveness against stated objectives. Indeed, communication can only be deemed strategic when it is grounded in analysis of the audience it aims to engage. This foundation allows activities and content to be designed based on a sound understanding of how specific societal groups perceive a given issue, consume information and trust government messages.

Evidence-driven communication applies data and insights at all stages of development and delivery – from the initial objective-setting and planning to the final stages of evaluation and learning. Such an approach seeks to build a strong understanding of the trends in public discourse around core policy issues; as well as audience perceptions, attitudes and habits; and the short-, medium- and long-term effects of communication activities (OECD, 2020[1]).

As mentioned in Chapter 1, the information ecosystem is increasingly crowded with a large volume of content. Multiple stakeholders across media, the private sector and civil society are competing for the public’s attention. More than ever, the current environment creates imperatives for making communication more targeted and compelling to specific publics. Doing so requires an understanding of behavioural, cognitive and psychological characteristics of specific groups of citizens, and knowledge of the communication channels they use.

Without a solid evidence base, institutions are casting their messages to an unspecified public in a crowded communication space, with little knowledge of whether and how information is received. Similarly, they have no means of monitoring and measuring the impact of their activity and whether it is serving any pre-defined objectives. For this reason, evidence – in the form of audience insights research, social listening1 or behavioural insights (BI) – is a prerequisite for a strategic approach to communication.

Thanks to the digital transformation of communication and the vast quantities of data generated by online activities, insights into audiences have not only become more diverse and precise but also cheaper, faster, and more easily accessible. Big data and software as a service (SaaS) platforms for online analytics have made acquiring and processing this information simpler, even for teams that lack specialised research or data science competencies. More qualitative and nuanced insights still require applied research methods such as surveys, polling, focus groups or behavioural experiments. Indeed, responses to the OECD survey on “Understanding Public Communication” (2020) suggest these are important tools in many institutions.

The role of data in particular in shaping public communication is visible among OECD survey responses, where 30 out of 38 centres of government (CoGs) and 17 out of 24 ministries of health (MHs) reported utilising different sources of data to inform the design of digital initiatives (Figure 3.1). OECD survey results suggest however that governments have yet to exploit its strategic value for the delivery of more responsive and effective communication. As Figure 3.2 illustrates, most CoGs and MHs primarily collect data directly from audiences, and only a small share of them use data on public service uptake for example.

Mainstreaming the use of data in the design, delivery and evaluation of public communication is also at the core of using this function to enable social listening capabilities. Analysis of public discourse as well as attitudes and sentiment towards a given issue are essential not only to craft attuned messages and content, but also to improve policy and ensure it is in line with the needs of its intended beneficiaries.

This chapter will explore the use of evidence, particularly with regards to audience and behavioural insights, in the design and delivery of public communication activities across CoGs and MHs in OECD countries and beyond. It will conclude with a series of reflections regarding the broader challenges to effectively leveraging this type of data, including ethical considerations and data privacy concerns that are crucial to keep in mind in this field. The subsequent chapter will complement the discussion of evidence-based communication with a focus on evaluation.

Understanding the public is fundamental to communicating effectively and inclusively with all groups in society, including minorities and underrepresented groups. Gathering and using audience insights can help make public communication more relevant and impactful by tailoring the choice of different channels and messages to specific target audiences. Although research on audiences is a well-established practice in many countries, specific cases were markedly scarce across OECD survey responses. For this reason, this section draws more heavily on aggregated data, and less on practical illustrations, which is an area of focus for future data collection.

As defined in the OECD survey, audience insight refers to research activity that helps gain a deeper understanding of the public’s motivations, impeding factors, fears or barriers, as well as their understanding of the subject to be communicated and their attitude towards it, as well as their media consumption habits. Efforts to understand stakeholders have become more prominent as digital platforms that generate vast data on users’ demographic features and attitudes have increased in number. The same platforms also allow for a more precise targeting of diverse publics, making this knowledge highly useful.

Responses to the OECD survey suggest that there is still significant scope to adopt more sophisticated methods for insight gathering and make this a more regular feature of designing communications. Indeed, 41% of CoGs and 21% of MHs report using audience insights to inform communication planning only on an ad-hoc basis, while 21% of MHs do not do so at all (Figure 3.3). Slightly over a quarter of CoGs reported gathering audience insights at least every three months. These frequencies can be suitable for communications around issue areas or policies that are slower-moving. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the spread of false or misleading content around it have highlighted the importance of understanding rapid shifts in public perceptions and demands for information that call for real-time capacity to conduct accurate research and adjust approaches accordingly.

The prevalence of less-than-frequent insight gathering can perhaps be attributed to the demanding nature of this area of communication in terms of time, resources and specialised skills required. Indeed, among the multiple different sources and methods of collecting this information, each has advantages, disadvantages, and contexts to which it is best suited. For instance, desktop research, such as media monitoring or social media analytics, is associated with low costs and rapid results, but tends to return top-line insights that may not be complete or accurate, or cut to the core of public opinion. Demographic data gathered by digital platforms for example is still largely self-reported data, so some biases can continue to affect the analysis in this field. More advanced data science skills can enable more sophisticated analysis but may be less common in communication teams.

By contrast, methods such as surveys, focus groups or interviews, which require extensive set-up, preparatory research and expertise, can return deep qualitative results but are highly resource-intensive. Despite this, data shows that between 70% and 50% of CoGs and MHs rely on surveys and focus groups for their analysis, with desktop research also being prevalent in over half of respondents (see Figure 3.4).

The availability of skilled professionals dedicated to this competency is an important enabler of a more frequent and advanced use of audience insights. Out of the 65% of CoGs reporting to have a dedicated person or team working on insight gathering, three-quarters have this staff embedded in the communication unit (although they sometimes cover multiple roles) and a small minority have separate teams with whom communicators co-ordinate. Similarly, 8% of MHs surveyed rely on external offices for their audience insights. Building these capacities and upskilling teams to benefit from new tools will be instrumental to strengthen the use of insights in communication.

Understanding the public facilitates better segmentation of diverse audience groups, allowing a greater differentiation of what content is best suited to each group and the communication channels on which different segments are more likely to see and engage with. In this respect, audience insights create opportunities for government messages to be elaborated into formats that make them resonant and relevant for diverse audiences and also help this content reach the intended groups through informed use of platforms. For example, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used responses to a Tweet where individuals stated they were preparing for a zombie apocalypse, alongside responses related to terrorism or natural disaster, to develop a campaign that resonated with the public. Building on these responses, the CDC disseminated information on how to react in the context of a zombie apocalypse (and other emergencies) as a way to spread important messages about pandemic preparedness. The campaign ‘went viral’ and increased traffic to the CDC’s Emergency Preparedness webpage by 1.143% compared to the same date the year before (CDC, 2018[2]). Such a use of insights can in turn enable more impactful communication but also support efforts to include harder-to-reach or vulnerable groups, such as youth and minorities, and ensure they are not left out of information-sharing and engagement opportunities.

Data from the OECD survey highlights that MHs engage in segmented audience targeting more than their CoG counterparts. Youth and people with disabilities are prominent target groups across CoG and MH respondents (Figure 3.5). Furthermore, close to a quarter of CoGs and 14% of MHs reported that they do not target specific groups. Indeed, only 23% of CoGs and 22% of MHs reported that audience segmentation and tailoring of communications was among the top three objectives of their audience insight gathering. Overall, these responses could indicate that diversified approaches and inclusiveness of communication are areas for development to implement more strategic communications.

Using the appropriate channels to reach all audiences is essential to the segmentation and targeting of communication. According to the OECD survey, the reach of a given channel, both in general and for specific target groups, is the primary criterion for its selection – above cost and timing (Figure 3.6). Insight-gathering is similarly instrumental in this respect, helping to understand which platforms each segment of the public consumes and how they engage with content. Survey responses show that using insight to select channels is somewhat established as a practice, with 50% of CoGs and 29% of MHs reporting that they do so.

Beyond its use in developing more tailored and effective communication, insight gathering can evolve into a mechanism for social listening – the practice of following online conversations and “listening” to citizens. An emerging theory on organisational listening, proposed most prominently by Jim Macnamara (2015[3]), elaborates the potential for communicators to listen to the public and understand the demand for information or engagement in order to respond to it. Organisational listening does not refer to snooping or tracking any individual or group’s speech or actions, which is contrary to data privacy and the democratic principles that guide this report (for more on ensuring privacy see the sections below and Chapter 5). Instead, listening refers to the legitimate practice of extrapolating trends from aggregated open data that can shape the communication agenda based on citizens’ needs, rather than the communication agenda driving the gathering of insights.

This is in contrast to the more common practice of communicating through “speaking” on a schedule determined by the government or institution’s own priorities and timings. Indeed, Macnamara’s research indicates that 80% to 90% of the communication by the organisations studied consists of “speaking”, meaning it is focused on one-way communication of information and content (Macnamara, 2017[4]). It suggests that public communication may be underutilised to identify and address citizens’ needs and that it is not sufficiently conceived as a two-way avenue for dialogue outside dedicated feedback initiatives.

As discussed in the OECD Principles of Good Practice for Public Communication Responses to Help Counter Mis- and Disinformation (OECD, forthcoming[5]), tracking real-time trends from aggregated data on discussions and interest in given topics is a useful practice. It goes hand-in-hand with interventions to fill so-called “information voids”, or gaps in reliable sources on a given subject, especially in relation to sensitive topics that are vulnerable to rumours and falsehoods (see Box 3.1). This approach is gaining ground in counter-disinformation efforts, and governments can leverage similar practices to make communication more responsive to citizens.

To this end, evolving the practices for gathering audience insights and building capacity to “listen” could help fully realise the potential of public communication to reinforce better governance and rebuild public trust. In turn, insights from listening activities could feed into policy making, and service design and delivery to ensure citizens’ voices translate into government action.

BI is defined as the “lessons derived from behavioural and social sciences, including decision making, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, organisational and group behaviour” (OECD, 2017[6]). It acknowledges that human behaviour is shaped by systematic biases that can hinder the ability of individuals to act in their best interest (OECD, 2019[7]). While drawing on BI can enable governments to improve communications to better prompt behavioural change, BI does not refer to changing individuals’ behaviours against their own will. Rather, when citizens struggle to make choices in their own interests, such as quitting smoking for example, communications can leverage BI to craft messages that help individuals overcome their own biases while preserving their freedom. In this regard, its use can make public communication more efficient in improving the welfare of citizens.

Disseminating information and conveying clear messages to citizens is often only half of the goal of a public communication campaign. If the messages transmitted are intended to lead to a change in behaviour, it is important to integrate behavioural insights early on. To ensure concrete outcomes, communicators can build on evidence about what actually influences behaviours, instead of relying on beliefs of “perfect rationality”, broad assumptions or declared intentions.

Sharing information on its own is not always enough to lead to behavioural change. Even when the target audience has a good understanding and adequate awareness of a specific policy issue, an “intention–action” gap can undermine the effectiveness of communication efforts. Indeed, research points to the relatively weak relationship between awareness, intention and action. For example, pro-environmental behaviours may not be adopted by those professing pro-environmental attitudes and beliefs (Dryzek, Norgaard and Schlosberg, 2011[8]; Eom, Kim and Sherman, 2018[9]). Survey results reveal that CoGs and MHs cite raising awareness and informing citizens about their rights and responsibilities more often than behaviour-specific objectives (such as engaging stakeholders or promoting the uptake and improving the delivery of public services).

This section will explore how public communication can use BI to better understand and encourage shifts in citizen’s behaviours by incorporating insights from different segments of society in its various stages. It will first examine how CoGs and MHs are interacting with BI experts to design communication activities. It will then outline potential opportunities to leverage BI at each step of the communication planning process. Examples from OECD countries and beyond are used to illustrate good practices in this field and reflect on recent lessons from the COVID-19 crisis.

Over the past decade, BI units have started to emerge within government institutions across the world. While many are already collaborating with communicators, OECD survey results point to an important number of countries that have yet to engage with BI experts to inform the design and delivery of communication efforts (see Figure 3.7). As a matter of fact, close to 63% (24 out of 38) of CoGs and 57% (13 out of 23) of MHs claimed to engage with behavioural experts within government or in academia and civil society. This is consistent with the fact that only 10 out of 24 CoGs and 6 out of 9 MHs report having a communication strategy or plan aiming at addressing behaviour change.

Despite their growing popularity, OECD survey results reveal that dedicated BI units are yet to be institutionalised within many CoGs and MHs (see Table 3.1). In fact, half of the CoGs whose public communicators engage with BI experts have no such expertise within government and engage solely with external actors (including civil society and academia). In addition, 6 out of 13 MHs that reported to engage with BI experts also stated that they have such expertise within government.

Several countries engage with both internal and external BI experts to enrich their communication planning. For example, the United Kingdom has both internal BI capabilities within Public Health England (PHE), the National Health Service (NHS) and other parts of government, including the communication team within the Cabinet Office (OECD, 2020[10]). In the case of France, the French Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation (Direction interministérielle de la transformation publique or DITP) functions as an inter-ministerial body providing tools and recruiting external experts for specific ministry projects (OECD, 2020[10]).

Evidence from the OECD survey also indicates diverse institutional set-ups among OECD and partner countries (see Table 3.1) in terms of BI experts within or outside government. For example, public communicators in Hungary state that they regularly consult with experts in social sciences, while the government of Mexico follows a multi-stakeholder model, referring to experts in different policy domains prior to the deployment of whole-of-government campaigns. Structurally, 4 out of 24 CoGs (Australia, Canada, France and Germany) and 2 out of 13 MHs (Belgium and Canada) stated that they did not have a BI expert within their communication team in 2019 but interacted with BI experts located in other areas of government. In some cases, there is a centralised BI function that offers expertise across government. This is the case in Germany, where BI experts at the Federal Chancellery are available to support other parts of government on a range of projects, including communication.

Additionally, survey results reveal that BI is not necessarily applied evenly throughout government. Indeed, survey data indicates that MHs are more likely to have internal BI resources than CoGs. For example, in Armenia, Australia, Ireland and Thailand MHs indicated to have BI experts within the Ministry’s staff while the CoGs did not. In addition, countries such as the United Kingdom and Ireland have created specialised BI units or have units with expertise in BI within MHs. In fact, 7 of the 13 (54%) MHs that reported engaging with BI expertise have such a person in their team, whereas the same is only true for 5 out of 24 (21%) CoGs. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for such arrangements to be as flexible as possible. For example, Ireland created a specialised subgroup, temporarily combining internal expertise (from the Ministry’s communication unit and research unit) with the expertise of external partners from other state organisations and academia to inform the deliberations of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). The role was to provide insights and to carry out targeted behavioural research studies to provide insight for communication about the virus and public health behaviours (see Box 3.2).

Based on the above findings, communication practitioners must overcome several challenges to ensure BI is used optimally. First, it is crucial that communicators have access to BI expertise within or beyond government. However, OECD survey data revealed that a significant portion of CoGs do not interact with BI experts or do so only on an occasional basis. Integrating BI experts into communication teams – whether through internal hiring processes or institutionalised partnerships with external parties – can lower barriers to collecting, using and evaluating BI and raise awareness around their benefits.

However, institutionalisation on its own is not enough to systematise the solicitation of BI expertise. Even where access to experts is provided, if the inclusion of those experts occurs on an ad-hoc or case-by-case basis, there is a risk of missing opportunities to enhance the impact of a campaign.

A key means to overcome this is to integrate an assessment of the potential use of BI in the design process for campaigns, including the identification of opportunities to include BI and an analysis of which fields of expertise would be most relevant.

BI practitioners within and outside government also require support from senior officials. Decision makers can advocate for an early-on integration of BI experts and call for ambitious experiments and the use of results for future communication campaigns.

BI can be solicited at every stage of the communication process, from the objective setting and the preliminary collection of insights to the evaluation phase (see Table 3.2). Including these types of insights throughout the process allows governments to have a rigorous and coherent approach to promoting behaviour change through communication. Indeed, BI can help detect and better understand biases, propose levers of behavioural change, and evaluate the impact attained.

A key task for any communicator is to identify an audience and build an understanding of its existing beliefs, expectations and behaviours. Applying BI can aid in the segmentation of groups and in the definition of objectives to tailor communications to different needs. Its potential to build an understanding of the drivers, fears and media consumption patterns of different target groups was acknowledged by a significant share of CoGs and MHs as a priority objective for their use of BI (see Figure 3.8). This can help identify which audiences are most likely to change their behaviour and which messages and messengers will be most effective.

Indeed, standard research methods such as surveys and focus groups can only go so far in achieving these aims as self-reported behaviours and motives do not always overlap with actual behaviours (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002[11]) (Kormos and Gifford, 2014[12]). They reflect attitudes rather than real actions, which can prevent the identification of the most adequate communication channels, and of the actual drivers of the target audience. BI research has a long history of narrowing the gap between declared and actual behaviours.

Evidence drawn from audience insights was indicated to influence campaign objectives for just under one-third of CoGs and MHs in OECD and partner countries (see Figure 3.5 above). BI can enhance the use of insights with research-based and tested models adapted to each type of audience, and can be a useful means to identify the extent to which behaviour is likely to be influenced by a communication campaign.

To capture actual behaviours, it is also important to reflect upon the ways in which the insights are collected. OECD survey results indicate that the primary methods for the collection of insights include the use of surveys (24 of 35 CoGs; 12 of 18 MHs), focus groups (18 of 35 CoGs; 9 of 18 MHs) and desktop research (18 of 35 CoGs; 10 of 18 MHs).2 These are common methods utilised in evidence-based communication to collect “self-reported” behaviours and intentions. However, it is important to complement these insights with information about actual behaviours, beyond “self-reported” behaviours and intentions. Using BI to design and inform communication strategies and activities

Despite the growing adoption of BI, behaviourally-informed insights are rarely used at the planning stages of communications. According to OECD survey results, the evaluation of behaviours (13 out of 24 CoGs and 5 out of 9 MHs), biases (7 CoGs and 4 MHs) and identification of initiatives to address behaviour change (10 CoGs and 6 MHs) are prioritised in less than half of communication strategies and plans across surveyed countries. These results reveal that even though individuals’ perceptions and actions are sometimes measured, BI is not systematically used in the planning processes, even though it can yield valuable results. In the case of the Government of Canada, for example, the administrationconducted monthly surveys that were behaviourally-informed to feed into the design of ongoing crisis communication efforts (see Box 3.3).

Furthermore, BI is well-positioned to provide ex ante advice on the most effective timings, channels and formats for communicating to different audiences. Whether it is because people are already thinking about the topic, because they are in a phase of behaviour change or simply because they have time to perform the behaviour, BI can greatly inform communication activities in this regard.

BI can also help public communicators fine-tune the details of ongoing campaigns, such as message framing and visual identity to maximise efficiency, readability and cognitive salience. In this regard, a good practice observed in the field is to test the framing of messages and visual content prior to the launch of a campaign to assess its efficiency, for example through A/B testing.3

Interestingly, testing campaigns through focus groups, comparison of options and user-testing is a common practice in 29 out of 37 CoGs and 17 out of 22 MHs and (see Figure 3.9). However, these methods focus on gathering declared intentions, which might not reflect actual behaviours. As such, bigger and more representative samples might be needed, complemented by both qualitative and quantitative sources of data.

The field of BI has rapidly evolved over the last decade to advance the application of cutting-edge theory into practice. To this end, several frameworks have emerged to summarise complex behavioural science literature and map the main factors affecting human behaviour. Some frameworks are particularly relevant to analyse behavioural challenges in terms of barriers and enablers to behavioural change. For example, the COM-B model is widely used to analyse behaviours using three main factors that contribute to behavioural change: capability, opportunity and motivation (Michie, van Stralen and West, 2011[13]). Other frameworks summarise how to apply behavioural science in practice to improve communications. For example, the EAST framework developed by the UK Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), outlines four main ways to facilitate behavioural change: communications campaigns can encourage behavioural change by making the desired behaviour Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely (EAST) (The Behavioural Insights Team, 2014[14]).

OECD survey results reveal practical examples of how BI factors can be integrated from theory to practice in key government campaigns (see Box 3.4). In Australia, behavioural insights were employed to identify at-risk groups in a campaign aimed at reducing the number of road accidents by personalising messages to the identified groups. Furthermore, BI has been used by the Government of Canada for redesigning communication material to increase the uptake of the online governmental service MyBenefits and resulting in its increased utilisation. Finally, the Netherlands used behavioural evidence to facilitate the work of check-out staff in groceries to lower the number of minors buying alcohol or cigarettes. By showcasing a weakness in the current system of ID checks, the government pushed citizens to systematically provide their IDs to checkout staff through communication materials which in turn, deterred youth from attempting to buy these products.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, BI practitioners have demonstrated the value of applying BI by adapting the content of communication campaigns to the perceptions of risk and awareness levels of citizens (see Box 3.5). In France, the behavioural analysis unit within the Direction Interministérielle de la Transformation Publique (DITP) evaluated key prevention campaigns and provided communicators with related advice. Furthermore, Finland, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, partnered with influencers and other trustworthy public figures to amplify governmental messaging during the crisis. Finally, emotional responses were leveraged in communication campaigns to increase civic duty and moral responsibility among the population. Positive emotions such as pride, joy or hope have been identified as more efficient to trigger voluntary action, as opposed to negative ones which may lead to inaction or self-protection (Brennan and Binney, 2010[15]). The integration of BI in campaigns allowed countries to fine-tune previous actions and collect relevant data that can be made use of in the evaluation stage.

Communication campaigns aiming to promote vaccination confidence also benefitted from the use of behavioural insights. For instance, the Government of Canada deployed methodologies and techniques to monitor knowledge, perception, fears and behaviours of citizens related to COVID-19. These insights found that people are more likely to respond to personal narratives regarding vaccination experiences than to information campaigns (OECD, 2021[18]). In Ireland, the Department of Health’s communication strategies were informed by the COVID-19 Communications and Behavioural Advisory Group (CBAG). CBAG played a strategic role by providing advice on communication tools that could be leveraged to increase the uptake of vaccinations such as the use of SMS messages after registering to get a vaccine confirming registration as well as reminding individuals of their appointments. Finally, in Colombia, a Randomized Control Trial was carried out to compare the intent of individuals to get vaccinated before and after exposure to a message which read “Healthcare workers will be the first to receive the vaccine. To help them fight COVID-19, when it’s your turn, they need you to get the vaccine too.” The research which was conducted in partnership with the British Embassy found that those exposed to the message were more likely to be vaccinated (The Behavioural Insights Team, 2021[19]).

Evaluating observed behaviour change at the end of a campaign can be a key means to demonstrate success and may, in turn, serve to encourage the application of BI. As Figure 3.10 illustrates, the most commonly used evaluation metrics among CoGs and MHs include measures such as number of people reached and awareness levels.

The evaluation of behavioural change has been particularly prevalent in the health sector and is increasingly acknowledged since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to OECD survey results, 11 out of 24 MHs in OECD and partner countries evaluated behaviour change in populations to measure the success or failure of a given campaign. For instance, the Public Health England campaign “Change4Life: sugar smart” evaluated changes in household consumption patterns resulting from the introduction of the Sugar Smart app and advertising across 750 supermarkets. In the context of COVID19, the Irish Department of Health has run weekly national surveys, focus groups and behavioural studies to better understand changes in attitudes, perception and media consumption patterns.

While the practice of BI entails rigorous experimental methods, OECD survey results indicate that only 6 CoGs and 2 MHs use experimental methods to evaluate the results of campaigns. The most popular methods employed by 22 CoGs and 10 MHs are surveys, whose limitations for evaluating behaviour change have been discussed in the previous sections. The evaluation of BI requires highly technical expertise, including the ability to plan and run rigorous evaluations, use relevant measures of behaviours, apply counterfactuals, and adapt the test methodology according to available data, resources and timeframe. Evaluating changes in behaviour can therefore be considered a discipline, one in which the synthesis and publication of results allows for the accumulation of experiences to build the necessary capabilities for public communicators to draw on post hoc insights in the early steps of future campaigns.

This chapter illustrated the strategic value of evidence-driven communication. It explored the utility of audience insights for improving the targeting of communication campaigns as well as its potential to shift to a two-way model of communication. It also provided an analysis of the critical role of behavioural insights in informing the design, delivery and evaluation of citizen-centric communication.

However, public communication and the integration of evidence do not happen in a vacuum. In this regard, the opportunities and challenges for employing insights more efficiently and effectively in the broader data ecosystem in which public communicators must operate merit further reflection. While not exhaustive, the following section reflects on issues for future research in this field, including:

  • ensuring sound data governance models to foster value creation within and beyond government

  • leveraging emerging technologies to build social listening capabilities and facilitate the collection and analysis of insights

  • addressing legal and privacy concerns through the ethical management and use of data.

First, the data-intensive character of the public communication profession raises important questions about data governance. Notably, growing volumes of information in an environment where institutional “legacy challenges”4 remain unsolved is inhibiting the ability of public sector institutions to access, share and extract value from data (OECD, 2019[20]). Barriers include lack of incentives, standards, and interoperable systems for storing and processing data (OECD, 2019[21]). Efforts to tap into the strategic value of data for public communication could be accompanied by a reflection on the role of data quality principles, the sharing of protocols and the establishment of relevant training programmes. In this regard, the OECD Recommendation of the Council on Enhancing Access to and Sharing of Data sets out general principles that could further guide related conversations (see Box 3.6).

The role of public communicators in supporting the effective dissemination of government datasets to promote their use and re-use remains an area to be further explored. In fact, while there are established communication channels with the private sector, the OECD Survey on Open Government Data (OGD) found that only 18 out of 33 countries consider civil society and journalists as priority communities to engage with on OGD initiatives and/or policies (OECD, 2018[22]). Similarly, only 14 out of 33 countries were found to have concrete communication strategies to raise awareness on OGD, its benefits and existing datasets (OECD, 2018[22]). As discussed in Chapter 5, these findings highlight opportunities for public communication and digital government units to co-ordinate in promoting the effective dissemination of data across and beyond the public sector.

Second, the rise of emerging technologies offers multiple opportunities to ground public communication in evidence. The use of chat bots is a common example. In Brazil, the Secretariat of Social Communication (SECOM) is employing intelligent machine learning processes to conduct sentiment analysis, monitor the effects of messages, and identify information gaps that may require refocusing content (see Chapter 4 for more details). In the United States, the Centre for Disease Control has similarly developed advanced social listening tools that triangulate diverse sources of data on public discourse and media in relations to COVID-19 and vaccination (see Box 3.1).

Third, public communicators increasingly face ethical dilemmas related to the use of insights in light of the growing reliance on personal information and artificially intelligent technologies. On the one hand, data privacy concerns emerge over how population data is gathered, used and reported. On the other, the programming of machine learning and natural language processors inherently reflect biases that may skew the collection and interpretation of data from different population groups, in particular among underrepresented segments of society. Some countries such as the United Kingdom have begun to disseminate general guidelines for data ethics to support the work of communicators (see Box 3.7). The OECD has also developed a set of principles, which could be of use for public communicators to reflect on the value and practical implications of data ethics (see Box 3.8).

  • For public communication to be deemed strategic, it needs to be informed by evidence, for example in the form of audience insights research, social listening or behavioural insights (BI). While a majority of countries make use of evidence to inform the design and delivery of public communication, there remains scope to collect, employ and disseminate insights on audiences, behaviour change and uptake of services in more systematic and strategic ways – from the planning to the ex post evaluation phases.

  • Audience insights provide communicators with a real-time understanding of public concerns and sentiments. Beyond simple demographic traits, understanding the habits, attitudes and information consumption patterns from different segments of society is key to making communication more inclusive, especially for underrepresented or disengaged groups.

  • Survey data revealed room for governments to more systematically embed audience insights into the planning, design and delivery of communication activities, given that a majority of CoGs and MHs state that they conduct this type of research on an ad hoc basis. Similarly, greater audience segmentation and diversification of content across channels and target groups that is based on audience insights can contribute to more impactful, communication.

  • Tapping into more sophisticated social listening capabilities by evolving the gathering of insights is the next frontier for promoting a two-way dialogue with citizens and making use of public feedback to improve policy making. Further research into the different types of insights and collection methods could help build a state of the art understanding and model for this field.

  • Emerging technologies have opened new possibilities for public communicators to gather and analyse evidence to inform communication activities. For example, big data, cloud computing, smart algorithms and analytical softwares have unlocked a vast trove of insights and diminished the cost of acquiring and processing information about audiences. Further research into existing tools could help build an understanding of the benefits and potential limitations in building stronger social listening capabilities, in particular those which may raise ethical, privacy and security concerns.

  • Behavioural insights provide key evidence on cognitive factors and biases that can enable communication to be more responsive and effective in reaching citizens amid competition for their attention in a crowded media ecosystem. Tapping into behavioural factors can help deploy communications that encourage desired actions in line with key policy goals.

  • Efforts toward strengthening institutional capacities and ensuring expertise are available to collect and embed BI in a scientific way could aid countries in reaching more effective communications.

  • Moving beyond a siloed collection and management of different types of behavioural data and audience insights could help ensure they are more widely used across public institutions and for relevant campaigns. Governments should reflect on data ethics and data governance arrangements to promote a whole-of government culture of evidence, avoid duplications and reduce costs.


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← 1. The OECD survey on which this report is based was administered in 2020 to cover the year 2019. Although the responses refer to the pre-COVID-19 era, several respondents have reflected the experience of the pandemic in some of their answers.

← 2. N= 35 CoGs and 19 MHs that claimed to use audience insights to inform its communication planning (question 9).

← 3. A/B testing refers to randomised experiments to compare two versions of a single piece of communication (i.e. message, visual, slogan) to determine which one is more effective.

← 4. Legacy challenges include: “outdated data infrastructures and data silos to skill gaps, regulatory barriers, the lack of leadership and accountability, and an organisational culture which is not prone to digital innovation and change” (OECD, 2019[20]).

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