“Trust me” has no place in public engagement: A lesson from Liberia

Posted: May 14th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

The “trust me” approach to public engagement asserts when it should listen, seeks superficial agreement when it should watch behavior, and in effect treats “trust” as something that’s nice to have when in fact it’s the oxygen that powers community collaboration.

Residents of Monrovia, Liberia, and indeed all of us are lucky that public health officials took a much more serious and robust approach to trust a few years ago.

Here’s what happened.

In 2015,  a young man was stabbed and killed in a gang fight in Monrovia. Routine testing revealed that he was positive for Ebola.

When public health workers identify a new case, they begin to trace the victim’s contacts so they can monitor and treat those most at risk and contain the spread of the disease.

That was much more difficult here. The public health goal conflicted with the police goal (identify and imprison the attackers). In addition, during a prior Ebola outbreak, the government had instituted forced quarantines, making Liberians even more reluctant to come forward.

The public health officials needed to create a kind of transactional trust, fast, with people not predisposed to trust. The officials needed information to trace contacts, and then trust to monitor those contacts for early signs of infection.

So they listened to what members of the community needed, found ways to provide it, brought the high risk contacts into quarantine voluntarily, and contained the outbreak. (More at the link above, including the story of “Time Bomb”.)

What struck me most about this case:

  • Trust was necessary,
  • It would be demonstated (or not) in the voluntary behavior of members of the community, and
  • It had to be nurtured – public health workers couldn’t simply assert that they were trustworthy.

And in this way, Monrovia 2015 is a microcosm of the public engagement challenge: creating operational trust strong enough to allow the community to do what needs to be done, when people have conflicting goals and a shared history that makes distrust a the likely response.

When have you seen public engagement respond to a situation where the community’s trust was a matter of life or death? What happened?