Q: With this project, did you originally set out to study the effects of COVID-19 on public service provision and trust in the government? If not, how did the onset of the pandemic affect your original research design and efforts?
Dotan Haim, Nico Ravanilla, and Renard Sexton: Our original project design was unrelated to COVID-19. Instead, our focus was on how concerted government service outreach to village leaders in conflict zones (the “Usap Tayo” program described below) affects whether those communities choose to engage with seemingly unrelated government programs, such as typhoon response and local peace-building. The pandemic struck about five months into the intervention, throwing the design for a loop. However, we realized that cooperation with the government’s COVID-19 response efforts was, in fact, a great indicator of whether village leaders built up enough trust to engage with the government during a time of need. In essence, we relied on administrative data from the government’s COVID-19 response to adjust the outcome measurement of a concept that was already central to our theory. We didn’t want to stop the intervention there, though. During the pandemic, we and our government partners adjusted the Usap Tayo protocol to continue engaging with village leaders “remotely” via phone, text, and video.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the intervention you conducted? Did you find that it affected efforts to mitigate COVID-19 and how do conflict zones differ from other contexts in this respect?
DH/NR/RS: The intervention we conducted was a series of meetings called “Usap Tayo!” (trans. “Let’s Talk!”) convened by the Philippine National Police’s Community Relations officers. These meetings involved connecting selected vulnerable barangays in each municipality with line agency representatives who could incorporate their citizens into government programs like employment training and agricultural assistance. Each of the Usap Tayo meetings had a dedicated topic, though all meetings followed a similar structure. The typical meeting involved a line agency or two sending representatives who are prepared to present information on relevant programs and answer questions from the village leaders. In theory, the improved communication and collaboration should engender trust between community leaders and state officials.
Overall, we found that when the pandemic struck, village leaders who participated in Usap Tayo were 20% more likely than their control group counterparts to share time-sensitive information with the regional COVID-19 task force. Pandemic risk-reporting was highest among village leaders who had medium levels of trust in the government. In this respect, our findings suggest that concerted efforts by the government to build trust in oft-neglected communities can pay large dividends during times of national crises. In the case of Usap Tayo, the relationships these meetings facilitated, and the programs that people gained access to, made the difference for these village leaders that have gotten so little in the past.
Q: Your paper speaks to the importance of local leaders (who had previously been “skeptical about the government’s capacity to provide services”) in the COVID-19 response. Moving in the other direction, as the COVID-19 situation continues to develop, do you see the pandemic impacting perceptions of local leaders or government institutions in a way that can either mitigate or exacerbate the conflict in the region?
DH/NR/RS: The way we view it, crises like COVID-19 are important “flashpoints” that can either mitigate or exacerbate conflict depending on peoples’ experience with the government during these times of intense need. For example, the 2004 tsunami is largely considered to have created the conditions for peace in Aceh, Indonesia while at the same time exacerbating conflict in Sri Lanka, in part due to vastly different government responses. The experience of local leaders (like village captains in the Philippines) is particularly important because of their role as opinion leaders and interlocutors between communities, the government, and armed groups. We hope that programs like Usap Tayo will allow for the type of sustained engagement between the government and local leaders that will increase government legitimacy and ultimately help mitigate conflict over the longer term.
Q: What recommendations do you have for policy makers and practitioners looking to improve public service provision and trust in the government amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
DH/NR/RS:The first thing we would suggest is to build on existing programs rather than start something entirely from scratch. Starting new can take a long time and marginalized communities have seen many programs come and go. So, it is often most effective to take programs that already operate but have weaknesses or are not inclusive and extend those to vulnerable populations.
Second, this kind of service programming works best when it is sustained and meets expectations. People do not change their attitudes overnight, and short-lived interventions can sometimes make things worse by raising expectations and then failing to deliver.
Third, don’t rule anyone out. We found that the Usap Tayo program actually had the biggest impacts in the most skeptical communities, many of whom supported non-state armed groups. Yes, they were dubious at the start about the government’s ability to deliver sustained services and contact, and had very low baseline outcomes. But that also means there is lots of space to improve, if you can overcome the reticence.
Lastly, if people are untrusting of the government on COVID-related issues (e.g., vaccine hesitancy, resistant to masks), it likely does not end there. These people likely have deeper issues of distrust in the capacity and intentions of government more broadly. Consider making broader service delivery a priority, rather than just focusing on COVID issues. This has two advantages. First, it means if there are COVID-specific frustrations or hesitancies, you can partially circumvent them. And second, you can build more general trust that sets things up for a better response during the next crisis.
Q: Can you share a few best practices for anyone who might be conducting similar types of research during the COVID-19 pandemic?
DH/NR/RS: First and foremost, ethical considerations have to be front and center — any kind of field project during a pandemic must not put research staff, partners, or the population at risk. In this particular case, we shifted all activities and conversations to the phone, rather than in person, and paused fieldwork for many months when remote activities did not make sense.
In addition, although this field experiment lent itself to adaptation to studying COVID-19 risk reporting as an outcome, many of our other field projects did not. Those projects simply had to be put on pause until a time when it made sense for the activities to resume. All three of us spent more time on observational studies over the last year than on our field research, which is the opposite of what is typical for this team.