Government communication: From strategy to service delivery
Thank you, Chairperson and thanks also to PRISA for this opportunity to share with fellow practitioners insights about tasks we commonly face. In many respects these tasks can be reduced to one challenge: to manage difficult bosses. And, woe betide, if the boss is a hydra of a colossus with many heads, such as government!
I was requested to speak on government communication in its translation of strategy into action. Let me start off by indicating that there are many descriptions attached to government communication.
We are often accused of being ineffective: and yet others allot to us powers that we do not have. There was for instance a report recently claiming that GCIS had built a ring of steel around Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang on the issue of HIV and AIDS. I should say I felt like responding on the record: “just try it – try to build a ring around Minister Tshabalala-Msimang”!
In other instances we have been accused of poaching from the media industry and thus weakening the journalism profession. And yet when some of the journalists who joined government return to their profession, government is said to be deploying party apparatchiks within the media, especially if this has to do with the public broadcaster!
CONTEXT OF PERIOD
On a serious note, this Conference, many may argue, is just another routine gathering. But we are convinced as GCIS that it is critical for good reason, particularly as we enter the Second Decade of Freedom. Quite clearly, we have reached a critical period as a nation – a defining moment to shape perceptions of ourselves by ourselves and also perceptions of ourselves by others.
As a country we are moving from a preoccupation with self-definition to actually living the brand. In this transition, public relations professionals must and will play a critical role.
The more optimistic among us argue, quite justifiably, that we have hit a communication “sweet-spot”, characterised by:
- A public mood that is at the same level as during the euphoria of transition in 1994 – in May last year, when people responded to a Markinor question on whether the country was going in the right direction, about 75% responded in the affirmative. This had in part to do with the Ten Year celebrations and interactions during the elections as people reflected on the progress we had made. Our successful bid to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup further reinforced this trend.
- Business and Consumer Confidence are at their highest in about two decades. In part it is such confidence which has driven the rising level of investment, with Gross Fixed Capital Formation rising in the past few years from 14% to 17%. The higher rates of economic growth are also being driven by rising Aggregate Demand, with burgeoning middle strata especially within the black community and low interest rates and inflation.
It is rare for any country to experience such “a confluence of encouraging possibilities”, as the President put it in his February State of the Nation Address. Our task as communicators is to ensure that we assist in mobilising society to consolidate this positive mood. This applies as much to government as it does to the private sectors and the NGOs.
IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATION
It is in this context that government has sought to improve efficiency in communication, particularly in the post-election period.
As you may know, the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) has been in evolution for 7 years, formed in 1998. At the beginning, we set ourselves modest aims, primarily to:
- ensure confidence across government regarding the value addition attached to the communication function in government;
- integrate the communication work of national departments in terms of methodology, strategies and programmes; and
- extend co-ordination and integration to the provinces.
Over the years, we have ensured that, in both the national and provincial spheres, a common methodology of communication is developed. The national communication strategy, approved by Cabinet, serves as a basis for departmental clusters to prepare their own strategies, and in turn departments do the same. Most of the provinces have also become part of this approach and cycle.
Around major issues and campaigns, generic messages and approaches are developed at GCIS level, working with relevant departments, to ensure that all of government sings from the same hymn book. This is achieved through project teams and, where applicable, fortnightly consideration of key messages on major issues by Cabinet.
Much more work still needs to be done in this regard.
But such has been the progress that, ironically, a few months ago, Ministers were criticised in one newspaper during parliamentary briefings after the President’s State of the Nation Address for being under the grip of President Mbeki’s intellect, unable to develop their own formulations on issues. This was because Cabinet had agreed on the central theme for the year and, by design, in all the briefings that Ministers conducted, they wove the core theme into their pronouncements, a core theme that the President also articulated in his State of the Nation Address.
In the post-election period, two qualitative developments have defined the evolution of the method and style of communication.
The first of these was the instruction from the President that all the decisions of the Cabinet makgotla which inform the programme he articulates in the State of the Nation Address should be placed on the government website, for public monitoring.
I should confess that this was to much discomfort among us as Ministers and DGs – all of us used to the tasks and timeframes being internal instruments for our own monitoring and evaluation, with the choice of what to release to the public. But the advantage of this new approach has shown itself many times over in the past year: not only in terms of government being held to account; but also in the sense that, in their reporting and analyses on government work, the more serious among the media have a frame of reference that is commonly understood, and government is assessed on what it has itself set out to do, rather than the preferences of others.
The second qualitative development is the programme that GCIS has embarked on more systematically to take the common methodology of government communication to the local government sphere. We have already in the past few months held 5 provincial workshops and we hope to complete the provincial visits before the end of the year.
In each of these interactions, bringing together communicators, other officials and in some instances political principals from provincial and local governments, agreement is reached on methodology, approach to preparation and implementation of communication strategies and how these should be linked to Integrated Development Plans (IDP), and structures that need to be set up.
Related to this challenge of setting up a communication system at local level is the recent spate of demonstrations in some municipalities. There are many reasons that have been proffered for these developments and each instance has its own specific causes.
It is quite clear, given the outcome of the 2004 elections, that there is appreciation that democracy has brought massive improvements in people’s conditions of life. Where the impact may be minimal, for instance with regard to potable water, sanitation and housing, there has always been hope that the programmes manifestly under way will reach those communities.
But there are instances where communities, sometimes correctly, come to the conclusion with regard to local government that resources are available but that bad planning, poor capacity and even corruption are constraining the implementation of programmes. In other instances, we may also be dealing with positioning among individuals for the party lists in the build-up to the local government elections.
Critical, though, is the central question of communication: do the affected communities fully understand the plans; do they know where to take their grievances to when there is manifest wrong-doing on the part of municipal officials; do they appreciate that illegal protests may worsen rather than improve their lot!
PRIMARY FOCUS OF CONTENT AND FORM
What then should be the main content and form of government communication?
Of critical importance in answering this question are two major conclusions from the Ten Year Review that government completed towards the end of 2003.
The first conclusion relates to the capacity and limitations of the state: that we succeeded most in areas that are directly under the control of government, such as changing laws and providing social services. Where, however, we relied on partnership with, or leadership by, others such as in economic investment and job-creation, the progress was limited. Thus the need for partnership: a people’s contract.
This principle applies equally to communication, especially on those issues that help consolidate pride in our country and ensure an objective and essentially positive image of our country abroad. Government cannot do this on its own – such an undertaking requires partnership across society.
The second conclusion from the Ten Year Review is about the centrality of economic programmes in the coming period. While we can pride ourselves with the progress made in provision of social services, and the fact that about two million net new jobs were created in the first Decade of Freedom, the problem is that the rate of unemployment has increased. As such, due to high levels of unemployment, the impact of even the social programmes can be undermined somewhat – if people are provided with electricity and yet they are unemployed, they will use it only for lighting and may not even be able to pay the bills.
Further, we also have to deal with the anomaly of an economy that is running short of skilled workers in particular categories and yet suffers from high unemployment – due to a mismatch between skills needed by the economy and the skills or lack thereof in society. As such you not only have unemployed people: many of them are in fact unemployable. Even if the economy were to grow at 6% many would not benefit. This is the essence of the Two Economies paradigm.
What is required are interventions that help uplift the conditions of Second Economy communities and build an integrated economy from which all can benefit. Attached to this is a profound communication challenge for government: ‘information to, information from, and information within the Second Economy’.
‘Information to the Second Economy’ applies in the main to broadening the base of awareness among individuals in these communities about the opportunities that exist and how they can take advantage of them. This would relate to such programmes as the Extended Public Works programme, the operations of and how to access the Apex Fund (for microcredit), information especially to the youth about learnerships and so on.
In this regard, we have to ensure that the platforms we use for such communication corresponds with the media that these communities use. Radio would be central among these; unmediated communication such as izimbizo, MPCCs and Community Development Workers is also critical.
‘Information from the Second Economy’ is critical because we do not have systematic data on dynamics within these communities – mostly we seek to do things for them rather than with them. To what extent, for instance, are there fungible assets in these communities, assets that can be used as or to access capital! Unmediated communication ensures this exchange of data; but more systematic work will need to be done through StatsSA.
‘Information within the Second Economy’ would ensure that the internal dynamics of this economy are fully understood by the “inhabitants” – that sustainable livelihood is created through matching of skills and facilities on the one hand and the needs that exist in these communities on the other. A simple example in this regard would be leaking pipes in these areas, electrical faults in homes and so on and the presence among these communities of plumbers and electricians.
We cite these examples to emphasise that communication is not only a service by professionals to make their institutions and principals “look good”: properly understood, it can act as a critical catalyst for development.
Of course, by raising issues pertaining to the Second Economy, we are not for a moment saying that matters pertaining to communication among First Economy communities are not important. What we seek to emphasise is that, especially as government communicators, we should pay particular attention to the development programmes that government is implementing.
Related to this is the challenge that we have to deal with everyday – one about the alignment between the work of marketing within both the public and private sectors and the dynamics in various communities. From a commercial point of view, marketers I think are only now waking up to the reality of emergent black middle strata and the buying power that they command. The advertising industry is struggling with adaptation to this reality.
As such, you still find the stereotypical approach that equates blackness with marginal buying power. The anomaly still persists where radio stations such as Metro and Ukhozi with millions of listeners enjoy advertising revenue that is far ‘out of sync’ with their large audiences. TV programmes such as Soul City, Emzini weZinsizwa and Muvhango suffer the same disadvantage.
What does this present to us in terms of immediate tasks: briefly that, in addition to addressing the challenges of its own communication, government has to work systematically in partnership with all role-players to transform the advertising industry. This applies to matters of ownership, diversity at all levels including creative departments as well as buy-in by marketers, in their own self-interest, into this transformation project.
CHALLENGE OF BRAND SA
We do all agree, I suppose, that these domestic challenges need to be attended to in conjunction with effective international marketing. We have already referred to the impact of the 2010 Soccer World Cup on the national mood and issues arising from the Ten Year Review pertaining to the partnership that is required to take society to a higher trajectory of growth and development.
The specific questions that are relevant to us as public relations professionals are:
* How does each one of us relate to the International Marketing Council (IMC) and its brand advocacy work particularly within the institutions where we are located? Shouldn’t PRISA make it its business to ensure that each member is a brand ambassador, including building relations with the IMC to ensure that each one of us is trained in the “brand key process” and other such instruments?
We have learnt as a country that, if you do not undertake systematic work to identify and promote the positive attributes that you have – like any other brand – you end up assuming a negative image by default. The IMC was set up precisely to deal with this weakness, as a partnership between the public and private sectors. What the IMC seeks to do, in the coming period, is to further strengthen its interaction with all communicators in the country by building a communication partnership around the 2010 World Cup challenge. At the centre of the issues that require attention will be how the country leverages this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to maximum effect.
- How do we address this specific national challenge in the context of the continental environment within which we operate? To what extent have PR professionals internalised the issue of the African agenda and how it impacts on our work in terms of international marketing?
Many of us perceive of this environment as a draw-back on our own fortunes as a country and seek to distance ourselves from the reality of being part of the continent. This is neither realistic nor helpful in marketing terms.
Our approach, I believe, should be to acknowledge the many weaknesses that exist in this environment; but from the point of view of the opportunities that these challenges present. To cite a few instances, the march of democracy and good governance on the continent has truly gathered pace; a new corps of leaders has emerged taking Africa to new levels of growth and development informed by their nations’ aspirations; the shortcomings in infrastructure on the continent in fact present an opportunity for public-private partnerships for mutual benefit.
- Is there sufficient appreciation in our society that the many activities we are engaged in on the continent as government are in the profound interest of our society? I raise this issue not to emphasise the importance of human solidarity and the marketing benefit that we would derive from an improved neighbourhood.
Rather this is to underline a practical question that affects most of PRISA members: many of the companies that we work for are doing business on the continent, with very direct benefits accruing to South Africans in terms of jobs created in the supply chains, with skills gained by managers in new environments, with returns accruing to the shareholders and so on. But do we project this sufficiently in our communication? Do we draw the link between the work and expenditure of government on African programmes and this benefit that accrues to South Africans? We do hope that in your future programmes, PRISA will pay attention to these issues, starting off with a deliberate effort to link up with the IMC.
These then are some of the strategic challenges that government is dealing with in the current period. At the core of our efforts is the task of contributing to the dynamic of a nation moving onto a new trajectory of growth and development, a nation intent on moving faster in improving the lives of all the people.
This is what defines our strategic outlook and the content of our day-to-day programmes.
It is in the nature of our work that as we pursue this communication trajectory, there will be detailed issues that we need to attend to everyday. With regard to each of the difficult ones, there may be a continuing need to straighten the creases in our communication that may present a distorted picture:
- be it HIV and AIDS and our ability to demonstrate that, combined with Anti-retroviral Treatment, we are in fact emerging as having the most comprehensive and biggest programme in the world;
- be it on matters of crime where gradually the tendency to laugh the police out of court when they release crime statistics demonstrating a reduction in the incidence of most crimes is diminishing as insurance and other sectors not linked to government start to report similar trends in their own work; and
- be it on matters pertaining to corruption as the reality sinks in that the cases linked to government are more often than not discovered by government itself and get reported when action is being taken – so confirming that our anti-corruption systems work.
So if, in my own expectation, anything should emerge from this PRISA Conference, it should be a common appreciation of the confluence of encouraging possibilities that the country faces, with the attendant communication challenges facing PRISA members.
Our task is to take advantage of these possibilities and build a communication partnership that will help the country enhance its own self-confidence as we march towards 2010 and beyond. In brief, as the theme of your conference enjoins us all:
Let us catch the sunrise!
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)