People’s sense of civic duty responds best to civil institutions

A few weeks ago, when he was launching the test, track and trace system, the Secretary of State for Health leaned towards a really good argument. He recommended that people should work with the system because it was their “civic duty”. Unfortunately his boss is a classicist of the Greek rather than the Roman persuasion and “civic” is a word of Latin origin. But down the centuries it has carried a lot of meaning in English and, if you want to appeal to people to behave in a certain responsible way, it’s a good adjective to use. It was a good argument for the Secretary of State to try out.

But if you want it to really influence the behaviour of a few million people you must translate its meaning into concrete experiences. The Cambridge dictionary defines the word as being “of a town or city or the people who live in it”. And it is the relationship between the concept of “civic duty” and a locality that gives the argument and the words their power.

Appealing to someone in a locality to do their civic duty by the people of – in my case Greenwich – is different from appealing to an abstract idea of duty. Most people feel something for their localities. Even if they have only lived there for a short while they will walk around their neighbourhood, get to know the cafes, the gyms and in my case the libraries and swimming pools. If they have lived there for a long time they will feel a sense of pride whenever it achieves anything – however tangential.

For most people, as the geographical limits of our world have shrunk during lockdown, our localities have mattered to us even more.

So appealing to “civic duty” as a means of curbing bad behaviour may work – but probably only if it relates to a specific locality.

The Secretary of State’s problem is that he works from a national location and his view of the world operates at the same level. Because he doesn’t experience this sense of locality as a central part of daily activity he overlooks its potential for use as a powerful argument about changing behaviour.

If only, in setting up the test, track and trace system, he had had a network of local civic organisations to call on to build the argument about civic duty. If only history, over centuries, had built up some sort of local government network which every day successfully deploys that civic duty argument. And, above all, if only someone had given those local authorities the responsibility and expertise for local public health directors to serve their localities…

If only all that had happened the Secretary of State could have built a test, track and trace system that would have been able, every day, to make powerful appeals to the civic pride of real localities.

And all of this existed already.

The downside for the Secretary of State is that neither he, nor his direct central government appointments, would have been in direct control of it.

I’ll leave that hanging there for a bit while the rest of us try and understand how that would be seen as a downside…

So what might a locally-run test, track and trace system that appeals to civic duty look and feel like?

Let’s pretend that in Greenwich I had been tested positive (gulp). A local person would ring me up from around the corner. They would give me the difficult news about the test results and talk me through treatment options with real names of local facilities. They would have up-to-date information on all the local primary and secondary care options. They would also explain to me why I had to self-isolate for 14 days and while doing so would remind me that just two streets away is St Pauls school where many children of NHS staff attend. They would point out that if I failed to self-isolate I might, during my morning or mid-afternoon exercise, walk past that school and directly or indirectly infect the NHS staff working in these local care facilities. They would explain that, if that happened, they would no longer be able to care for me – or anybody else.

My local tracer would also understand that I still wanted to go to the park for a walk first thing every morning. They would point out that to do that I would have to walk past two (named) retirement homes in one of which their own mum was living and that they would very much like me to not to infect her. They would remind me that if I went to the local supermarket, the proportion of migrant mums and dads that shop there for their children would have a higher likelihood of a bad prognosis if I were to give them the virus.

This would take 10-15 minutes discussion based on local knowledge of what goes on in the streets around my flat. That conversation helps to create the concrete experience of civic duty. Local people talking about their responsibility to other local people.

Local Directors of Public Health try and create this model but are having to do so against the grain of the national test, track and trace system.

Last week’s Health Foundation newsletter had a great Q and A session with Dr Muna Abdel Aziz Director of Public Health for Salford. In it she says,

“With national testing for example the tests were taking so long to order. And the results go back to the individual, not necessarily to the setting that requested it (School or workplace.) So even though the public health team can direct some of the national testing, we can’t always get hold of the results. Until we are in the position where we have got named personal level information on people who are testing positive and their contacts, and without a complete picture on the data side we are always working to catch up. Even the negative results are important so we can step down our isolation and advise on contacts.”

If the main organisational focus had been the locality through which civic pride can be mobilised, these difficulties would not exist.

In this post I am taking the Secretary of State at his word on civic duty. It is a great idea, but to make it work he needs to make the argument through local civic organisations.