During the COVID-19 outbreak, health information systems have been a crucial issue within many countries. Countries must fight not only the spread of the virus but also the lack of information and misinformation. Therefore, in a time of crisis, a communication strategy should be developed to attain a well-informed public (Depoux et al., 2020). The government, as the administrator of the country, should undertake precise communication strategies and policies to handle the COVID-19 crisis. The government has a crucial responsibility to prevent information turmoil.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indonesian government, among others learned how to improve services and communicate with citizens through social media from routine to critical situations (Kavanaugh et al., 2012). Al-Badi (2013) also shows that several countries were adopting social media in government departments and that they started to use it to communicate with citizens. After the virus outbreak at the end of 2019, most countries started to release information regularly about the spread of the virus, the number of infected people, the number of deaths, and other COVID-19 related information through various media and platforms, including websites. Besides social media, each country now also focuses on their official website that contains information about COVID-19.
This phenomenon can be seen in Indonesia, because after the first case of COVID-19 in Indonesia was announced in early March 2020. The Indonesian government through its spokespersons has held daily press conferences with journalists who disseminate COVID-19 information by print, electronic, and digital media. Also, in response to the emergence of a positive case of COVID-19 in Indonesia, the central government formed a special team called the Task Force for the Acceleration of Handling COVID-19. This particular team created the website https://covid19.go.id that can be accessed by Indonesian people to learn about the development of the coronavirus in their country. Below is a screenshot of www.covid19.go.id.
Besides the official website at the national level, nearly every province and city in Indonesia has a particular website for COVID-19 information. One province, West Java (Jawa Barat), launched a website called PIKOBAR (Center for COVID-19 Information and Coordination).
Despite the attempts of the Indonesian government to provide information about COVID-19, a nationwide survey found that more people relied on information from the mass media compared to direct information from the government (Suherlina, 2020). The survey results also showed that people sought more information through a health association or a doctor’s website than the official government website (Suherlina, 2020). Though the survey did not investigate the level of transparency as the essential issue in information sharing, transparency is related to the level of trust in government.
That limitation in Suherlina’s (2020) report illustrated the knowledge gap that our research wanted to address. Indeed, it is important to address this gap because, in this period of uncertainty, transparency and trust in government information releases are most needed by the public (Lancet, 2020). Moreover, the Lancet (2020) also stated that “there may be no way to prevent a COVID-19 pandemic in this globalized time, but verified information is the most effective prevention against the disease of panic.” Therefore, this research explores the citizens’ habits of accessing information and their trust in government during the COVID-19 outbreak in Indonesia. This research has two research questions:
a. How often do Indonesians seek COVID-19 information on the Indonesian government official website for COVID-19?
b. What are the Indonesian people’s opinions on transparency and trust in the government’s release of COVID-19 information?
Definition of Transparency and Trust
Williams (2014) points out two principles of transparency: “(1) Transparency is about increasing the quantity and quality of information available to interested parties, and (2) Transparency is about increasing the constraints on public ofﬁcials to enable citizens to hold these ofﬁcials accountable for their actions” (p. 4). Meanwhile, according to Vakarelov and Rogerson (2020) the definition of transparency must meet two conditions: “(1) The information made available must be sufficient, and (2) the information must be released in a way that is accessible” (p.74). In other words, transparency is related to data and information openness.
In a broader context, Williams (2014) suggests transparency consists of a wide-ranging concept, including information transparency. accessibility and accountability. Therefore, it is essential to the concept of transparency that the public can reliably access the information.
Additionally, transparency of information will be followed by trust in information. Fundamentally, information transparency is important for trust-building (Song & Lee, 2016; Zhang et al., 2020). In a time of crisis, “trust is an essential element that could keep society together” (Mei et al., 2020, p. 9). Once the government releases unreliable information, public trust will become challenging to reclaim (Khosravi, 2020). It can be concluded that trust is about the visibility of transparency.
The relationship between transparency and trust during the pandemic has been described by Moon (2020b) in the possible effects of transparency and non-transparency policies on public trust in government (see Figure 1). Moon (2020b, p. 654) further explains that:
… a transparency policy might result in trust deficit in the short run because the growing number of new infected patients is likely to cause citizens to experience fear and frustration about poor performance on infectious diseases, which tends to lower public trust in government. However, a policy of transparency eventually leads to a trust surplus in the long run because the public will then accept the government as a reliable source of information and come to trust government actions.
Moon (2020b) also noted that the participation of Koreans in fighting COVID-19 was increased because of the transparency policy and trust surplus, as shown in Figure 1. A similar statement also was argued by Everett et al. (2020). They pointed out that authorities should build trust by being honest about the pandemic instead of a positive image being projected regarding what they are doing to handle the pandemic. Transparency and trust-building during the pandemic are also essential to reduce conspiracy theories and fake news (Deslatte, 2020; Ogola, 2020).
The concept of transparency and trust in this study was measured by asking the respondents their opinions. Therefore, the focus of this study is the public’s perceived transparency of government information release, not an objective assessment of transparency.
The issues raised by government communication relate to many disciplinary areas. Government communication includes “the role, practice, aims and achievements of communication as it takes place in and on behalf of a public institution(s) whose first end is executive in the service of a political rationale, and that is constituted based on the people’s indirect or direct consent and charged to enact their will.” (Canel & Sanders, 2013, p. 2).
Moon (2020b) suggests a new concept of open government. By adapting the new open government, not only the focus of the policy should be changed but also how the information should be digitalized, interactive, and accountable. At the same time, the citizens could play a role as coproducers. Indeed, this new open government initiative will face many challenges therefore “the maturity of citizens’ participation, quality of open data, and government capacity, among other aspects, are expected to determine the success of open government initiatives.” (Moon, 2020a, p. 554). Yet again, quality of government openness and capability that results in transparency and trust is the essential factor to initiate new open government.
The essence of government communication is to share understandable and accurate messages to the public as well as to provide accessible information (Zhang et al., 2020). However, in many developing countries, because of low levels of education and limited access to information, poor people are vulnerable during a pandemic. A study in Africa noted that crisis and risk communication strategies must consider the socio-economic inequalities in developing countries by being “pro-poor” and “pro-vulnerable” to build trust, credibility, honesty, transparency, and accountability (Ataguba & Ataguba, 2020). Like Africa, Indonesia is categorized as a developing country. Therefore, effective government communication that prioritizes the lower economic class is needed not only to create understandable messages but also to build trust and transparency.
This study uses a mixed-method design to investigate opinions on transparency and trust in the government’s release of COVID-19 information. A mixed-method design employs the combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches in term of viewpoints, data collection, and/or data analysis to gain a more comprehensive understanding (Schoonenboom & Johnson, 2017). In the first stage, the results of a survey questionnaire are described using a descriptive quantitative method. In the second stage, the data are examined using qualitative methods. Then the overall data are analyzed and conclusions are drawn. By using a mixed-method approach, this research gained a broader understanding of the level of transparency and trust as well as the reasons behind the answers.
This research involved 500 participants who are Indonesian, living in Indonesia, and belong to three generations: Generation X (born 1961-1980), Generation Y (born 1981-1994) and Generation Z (born 1995-2010).
This study used a non-probability sampling technique. Quantitative data was obtained by sharing an electronic questionnaire link through a variety of platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. The questionnaire, which contained closed and open questions, was available for a month (April 2020). It included questions about transparency, trust, factuality, message clarity, and understandability of the COVID-19 information provided by the government,
Qualitative data analysis was used to expand the description made from quantitative data analysis by systematically describing words in sentences. First, analysis of qualitative data is conducted by grouping participants’ answers from the open questions in the questionnaire. This grouping process was then followed by making categories of opinions toward government information release related to its transparency, trust, clarity, comprehensibility, factuality, insightfulness, and whether it raised alertness.
This study included 193 male and 307 female participants from three generations. Most participants live in West Java. The participants consisted of 76 persons from Generation X, 98 persons from the Generation Y, and 326 persons from Generation Z. Most participants were from Generation Z, because Generation Z members were born in the digital era, and often spend most of their time online (Kligler-Vilenchik & Literat, 2020). Moreover, most Internet users in Indonesia are members of Generation Z (Pratomo, 2019). Most of them are high school or college students (Figure 3).
Results and Discussion
Frequency of Information Searching
In general, participants prefer to seek COVID-19 information from online news rather than from the Indonesia government official website for COVID-19, www.covid-19.go.id. or province/city official websites for COVID-19. Crosstab analysis from three sources of COVID-19 information found that significant differences occurred in information searching through online news. It shows that the majority of Generation Z rarely uses an online news portal; however, Generation X and Generation Y have a similar percentage of use (less than 40%) in rarely and often. Moreover, only about 1/5 of all respondents use the government website often. It means that most people search for information on COVID-19 from online news sources.
Opinion on Government Information Release
As seen in Figure 4 below, this study found that, in general, the participants believed that the transparency of the government’s official releases of COVID-19 information is at a low level. This low level of transparency generates a minimum trust of the information, with only 8% of participants trusting the government’s information releases about COVID-19. Compared to other generations, Generation Y had the lowest opinions about the factuality and clarity of government messages.
Findings also show that four of seven variables (transparency, trustworthiness, clarity, comprehensibility) have significant differences among Generations X, Y, and Z (see Table 3). For the factuality, insightfulness, and raise alertness indicators, there are no significant differences. This means all generations have relatively similar opinions. They believe that the government’s information release is not factual; however, it gives insightful information and raises alertness about the pandemic.
On the other hand, the transparency, trustworthiness, clarity, and comprehensibility of the government’s information releases have significant differences across Generations X, Y, and Z. As much as 60% of Generation Y and Generation Z agree that the government does not provide transparent information about COVID-19. Almost 70% of Generation Y has low levels of trust in government information while 50% of Generations X and Z have the same opinion. This condition is similar regarding the clarity indicator. Meanwhile, for the last indicator, comprehensibility, the majority of all generations indicated they could understand the information.
After the first case of COVID-19 emerged in the first week of March 2020, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, revealed that his government was not sharing some information on COVID-19 to avoid public anxiety (Pangestika, 2020). The president’s statement backfired because, as some responses in the qualitative part of the study show, participants consider that statement as: “Confusing, not transparent, creates panic… it is all because policies and regulations change quickly.” (Participant #1, Generation Y).
Similar to the quantitative analysis result showing a perception of low transparency, participants agreed that the act of withholding information leads to low transparency, as stated by one participant:
Participant #2 (Generation X): From the beginning the case emerged … the government was not open to data from COVID-19 … data transparency is very lacking…Government policies are also inconsistent, often changing between wanting to side with the people’s safety (health) or economic problems.
Another point of concern was that the government had not been following one of the most critical requirements of pandemic management, which is the transparency of data and information (Daraini, 2020). This ignorance was interpreted by a participant as data manipulation that results in information chaos (Participant #3, Generation Z). In line with Daraini’s (2020) argument, the participant also believed that government actions could be envisioned as a step away from success and worsened the damage of the COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia. The lack of transparency, certainty, and consistency by the Indonesian government could have damaged the efforts to stop the pandemic (East Asia Forum, 2020).
The low level of transparency could be related to the high degree of corruption. Whembolua and Tshiswaka’s (2020) study of COVID-19 in Congo noted that the high level of corruption that lessened openness is the most significant barrier in the containment of COVID-19. It seems what appeared in Congo is quite relevant to the situation in Indonesia as the country that ranks at 85 out of 180 in the Transparency International Corruption Index 2019. In other words, the higher the level of corruption, the lower the transparency, creating mistrust and making it harder to overcome the pandemic.
In the time of pandemics, the success or failure of the containment depends on how to promptly change public behavior and manage it so that citizens trust and follow government advice (Moxham-Hall & Strang, 2020). Moreover, a sense of trust in government is indispensable in a time of crisis (van der Meer & Zmerli, 2017). Unfortunately, in this study, participants distrusted the government’s information releases. This could be observed in several opinions from the participants below:
Participant #4 (Generation Y): I do not believe [the information] … it’s too many deprivations, and I think [the information] is fabricated. .
Participant #5 (Generation Z): [The information is] Inconsistent, always changing.
The low level of transparency and trust shown in this study differs from the experiences of European countries such as Norway, Sweden, and New Zealand as well as other Asian countries such as China, South Korea, and Singapore. Norway has been successful in handling the COVID-19 pandemic because it is “a high trust society with a reliable and professional bureaucracy” (Christensen & Lægreid, 2020, p. 1). Meanwhile, a survey in Sweden showed that the COVID-19 crisis has led to a higher level of institutional and interpersonal trust among the Swedish public (Esaiasson et al., 2020). Similarly, in New Zealand, during the lockdown time, its citizens gained more trust in politicians and satisfaction with the government’s performance (Sibley et al., 2020). Those low population density countries with welfare programs and its have succeed not only in building trust toward their government’s goodwill and capability but also in assuring their citizens to follow their governments’ policy strategy in resolving the pandemic.
As the first city infected with COVID-19, Wuhan recovered quickly from being the epicenter in December 2019 into its virus-free state in April 2020. This successful COVID-19 containment was achieved because “the accessibility and openness of information could be enhanced to form convergent points in the whole communication process, especially when dealing with uncertain issues, to keep the public regularly and timely informed, and [could] take care of the communication strategies dealing with uncertainties” (Zhang et al., 2020, p. 10).
One more successful COVID-19 containment was accomplished by South Korea. After a MERS failure, South Korea has improved its risk communication by providing more open and transparent information to the public (Moon, 2020b). In effect, this improvement is thriving, with 74.4% of participants in a national survey acknowledging the transparency and more than 60% trusting the government information releases about COVID-19 (Moon, 2020b). Furthermore, Moon (2020b) explained “A policy of transparency eventually leads to a trust surplus in the long run because the public will then accept the government as a reliable source of information and come to trust government actions”(p. 4).
The Indonesian government could learn from its closest neighbor, Singapore. This country’s citizens perceived a “very positive perception of the government’s risk management and communication efforts, and expressed a very high level of confidence in the Singapore government” (Mei et al., 2020, p. 6). Furthermore, Mei et al. (2020) also stated that the positive responses toward the Singapore government have resulted from transparency, competency, and effectivity in managing the COVID-19 crisis.
People’s trust is related to their satisfaction in public services performance. Van de Walle & Bouckaert (2003) explain that a good quality of public services will create trust in government. They also imply that people’s perception of public service performance is based not only on government-citizen interactions but also on citizen-citizen relations. In our study, Generation Z, who already perceived a low level of government performance, also experienced low trust in the government (see Table 3).
Despite the low level of transparency and trust, the participants in this present study considered that the information from the Indonesia government is clear and easy to understand. For instance, they said the messages were “clear and easy to understand, but not transparent, the reality is different from the data” (participant #6, Generation Z). A similar belief was also expressed by three members of the Generation Z:
Participant #7: “[the information is] easy to understand, but the government policies in handling COVID-19 is not too accurate and unpredictable.”
Participant #8: “An explanation of the COVID-19 virus is quite clear, but how to handle it is still far from clear.”
Participant #9: “The information conveyed by our government is clear, but there is no certainty whether the information is valid or not.”
These statements mean that our participants express disbeliefs and skepticism as to how the government could prevent the spread of the virus and manage the health, economic, and social crisis during the pandemic outbreak. This statement is also strengthened by a study from Indonesia (Salahudin et al., 2020) that found during the first stage of the COVID-19 outbreak, communication and coordination between the president and governors in handling the outbreak had different priorities even though they had the same vision. This skepticism could have resulted from complex reasons beyond transparency and trust in information.
In this regard, we offer two alternatives to curtail Indonesian citizens’ skepticism. First, the Indonesian government should increase the effectiveness of digital media use to communicate with its citizens. The choice to use digital media was also stated by our participants, for instance:
Participant #5 (Generation Z): I trust my friends or doctors who share information through the media more.
Participants #1 (Generation Y): I always have to update the news, but I prefer to trust the opinions from some people who I think are qualified like doctors or epidemiologists who use social media or portals.
Participants trust of information from media or social media is in line with Song and Lee’s (2016) study that stated the interaction between government and citizens on social media would improve citizens’ opinions on transparency and trust in government. In this period of uncertainty, not only the government but also public health organizations have to use social media to increase trust and reduce false narratives (Lovari, 2020). Indeed, Indonesia’s president, Jokowi, has used Twitter to increase his citizens’ awareness of the pandemic. However, it is suggested that Jokowi use more hashtag to reach a broader audience and a more comprehensive range of tweets (Prayoga, 2020). Therefore, Indonesia’s government should include more effective digital media strategies in their crisis communication policies. The effectiveness of digital media in government information release could be explored in future studies.
Besides increasing the use of social media, Indonesia should improve the level of digital literacy. Digital literacy can empower people to be more selective in consuming and sharing information, particularly in the information chaos during the pandemic (Vraga et al., 2020). In this regard, the Indonesian government can use social media influence as people believe in someone they know rather than the government itself. The use of opinion leaders/influencers can be a key to improving government communication during a crisis.
Using a survey with 500 participants from different generations, this study found that transparency in COVID-19 information released by Indonesia government is still at a low point. This low level of transparency results in a minimum level of trust in COVID-19 information. Moreover, information from the Indonesian government also can raise alertness on COVID-19 in a positive sense, such as on how this virus spreads from human to human. This alertness forces Indonesians to educate themselves about this contagious virus.
On the other hand, contrary to the low level of transparency and trust, most participants said that the messages from the Indonesian government are insightful. This contradiction has resulted from participants’ disbeliefs and skepticism with the government even though the messages were clear and easy to understand.
Several limitations could be found in this study. First, the results of this study cannot be generalized to other populations. Second, using an online survey method, this study did not reach a proportional number of participants in each generation. Lastly, the questions for qualitative data should be developed to gather deeper insights. Hence, more detailed questions, variables, and analysis, especially exploring the role of online news, social media, and influencers toward the COVID-19 information seeking process, are needed in future research.
Alila Pramiyanti is a lecturer at the School of Communication and Business, Telkom University and can be reached at Telkom University, Jl. Telekomunikasi Jl. Terusan Buah Batu, Sukapura, Kec. Dayeuhkolot, Bandung, Jawa Barat 40257, Indonesia or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ira Dwi Mayangsari is a lecturer at the School of Communication and Business, Telkom University and can be reached at Telkom University, Jl. Telekomunikasi Jl. Terusan Buah Batu, Sukapura, Kec. Dayeuhkolot, Bandung, Jawa Barat 40257, Indonesia or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Reni Nuraeni is a lecturer at the School of Communication and Business, Telkom University and can be reached at Telkom University, Jl. Telekomunikasi Jl. Terusan Buah Batu, Sukapura, Kec. Dayeuhkolot, Bandung, Jawa Barat 40257, Indonesia or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yasinta Darin Firdaus is a student at the School of Communication and Business, Telkom University and can be reached at Telkom University, Jl. Telekomunikasi Jl. Terusan Buah Batu, Sukapura, Kec. Dayeuhkolot, Bandung, Jawa Barat 40257, Indonesia or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Date of submission: 2020-06-30
Date of the review results: 2020-07-31
Date of the decision: 2020-08-10