8 March 1999
The pleasure I experience in presenting this year’s Budget of the Government Communication and Information System is, I am certain, something that all Members of this House share.
I am informed that at the briefing to the Portfolio Committee, Members from all parties complemented the management of GCIS for what they termed a dramatic turn-around in government communications, in a period of less than a year.
When I rose to address parliament last year, the books of the old SACS were finally closed; and the era of a new, fresh and innovative communications order was ushered in. Over the past year, the Secretariat of GCIS has started, at a breathless pace, to transform government communications into an integrated system.
But we are only at the beginning of a protracted process towards a communications environment in which we can say with confidence that the citizens of our country are adequately informed about government policies and programmes; and indeed about their role in the on-going struggle to change their lives for the better. Before that is achieved, we can only draw solace from the small steps we are taking; fully aware that the journey is long and hard. We have no reason to pause.
Transformation of GCIS
Honourable Members would recall that the appointment last year of the management of GCIS brought to an end a very important phase in the renewal of government communications - a phase which began when Deputy President Thabo Mbeki appointed the Communications Task Group.
We remain indebted to that group of 13 men and women who scoured through reams of submissions, worked through dozens of presentations, and travelled through many countries to finally arrive at what has been called the Comtask Report.
Their incisive recommendation, among others, that the purpose of the new information system "must be to provide a network throughout the country which provides evand control their lives", remains the injunction that spurs us on, as we improve the manner in which government converses with the public.
And so the new management began prodding through the rubble to find what could be salvaged of a structure that was teetering on the brink of utter demoralisation: with an re reduced to rubble.
After a long process of evaluating staff, the structures and systems in the organisation, the conclusion was reached that there was much that could be taken into the future. However, the orientation and posture of the organisation had to be shifted. Of a formal establishment of over 500, only 230 people remained; and among these, a small percentage was involved in actual communication. As GCIS expands to a much smaller formal structure of about 360 personnel, a deliberate effort is being made to ensure that the overwhelming majority of new employees are communicators.
Introducing a new culture also meant embarking on a protracted process of transforming the mind sets in line with the new mandate of communicators, infused with the public service spirit of Batho Pele, and possessed by the passion of the GCIS motto: Bua - the right to know!
Over the past year, morale has picked up, as certainty set in; as staff could feel the sense of legitimacy that derived from new attitudes within government; and with palpable results in many areas of work that made personnel feel that they were making a difference.
How is it possible that the GCIS seeks to achieve more with fewer personnel?
Firstly, by keeping a tight rein on staff employed for purposes of production.
Secondly, by ensuring that regional offices become the hub of government communications, with the majority of staff being communicators; and above all, building closer working with Provincial Governments.
Thirdly, by reducing the proportion of people in administrative functions in favour of professionals; which will entail, among others, retraining and constant upgrading of personnel.
Restructuring has also meant developing a greater degree of client orientation, and communicating through channels that people prefer. The organisation has started to introduce a project management system that will see it delivering integrated services to the campaigns of government.
Integration of communication
Strategies and programmes
As Comtask recommended, the GCIS Secretariat is a strategising body located in the Presidency. Among the reasons why this was decided upon is the need to ensure that communication structures are fully and continually briefed on government thinking. This has been enhanced by the attendance of Cabinet meetings by the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation.
An important step in the fulfilment of this mandate was the drafting of a national government communication strategy which was adopted by Cabinet last October. This was updated in the context of the opening of parliament and the GCIS Parliamentary Briefing Week.
Based on research by government for purposes of government communication, this strategy provided for the overarching message which government uses in its various activities. The assertion that the foundation has been laid and the building has begun; and emphasis on hope for the future of our country are both an expression of the reality within which we live, and a reflection of the perceptions that exist within the public.
It is also in the transversal campaigns of government that the creative hand of GCIS has sought to display itself. Thus GCIS has made decisive inputs in the preparation and execution of, among others, the following campaigns:
- the AIDS Awareness Campaign and the launch of the Partnership against AIDS;
- the Jobs Sumli>
- the Anti-Corruption Conference and the upcoming inter-sectoral Summit;
- the Human Rights National Action Plan; and
- management of the event around the handing over of he TRC Report.
In consultation with the Youth Commission and the IEC, and on the basis of quick research, the GCIS was able to throw in its lot into the voter registration campaign. We should acknowledge here that, had this been started earlier, the impact could have been much better.
The strategising role of GCIS has also found expression in the work of individual departments and agencies. Inputs have also been made regarding the restructuring of departmental communication components.
An exciting area initiated last year, and which should take shape in the next financial year has been the development of an international marketing strategy for South Africa. I am sure both sides of the House will agree that for far too long we have not had an integrated strategy and programme which all departments, indeed all sectors of South African society, can in various ways, promote in marketing our country abroad. The GCIS has been working with the co-ordination and Implementation Unit in the Deputtasks of GCIS is to ensure co-ordination among all sectors of government communication. A key element of this has been the Government Communicators’ Forum - a fortnightly meeting of Heads of Communication in the departments and/or ministries. This serves as a platform to plan for Cabinet meetings and to share views and experiences on major communication challenges. The various departments and agencies have been grouped into clusters which have begun meeting regularly.
Regular consultations with Heads of Communication in the Provincial Governments has helped to vastly improve relations between the two spheres. Arising from these discussions, it has been agreed that the revamped regional Government Information Centres will formalise their relations with their provincial counter-parts.
The last Inter-Governmental Summit seven days ago agreed that these consultations should continue, leading to the adoption of Memoranda of Understanding between GCIS and Provincial authorities. I am pleased to report that the initial distrust displayed by Western Cape government officials has made way to an appreciation of the need for collaboration without derogating from each sphere’s programmes and obligations.
With regard to training, the recent appointment of an experienced trainer on a contract basis, to establish a curriculum and governing body for such training, will contribute immensely to professionalising government communication even further.
Media policy and relations
A great deal of attention has been paid to improving relations with the media. GCIS has more or less formalised the institution of monthly press breakfasts where Ministers provide in-depth background briefings. In consultation with journalists, the format of the Parliamentary Briefing Week has been improved. What ie improvements being introduced are worked out in consultation with our colleagues in the media.
It is our firm view that, while professionalising servicing of the media in general, even greater emphasis needs to be placed on developing links with those media which are closest and easily accessible to the majority of the people. Community media have been placed on an electronic network for government and development news.
During the course of the year, consultations have been held with a number of media houses about the approach of government to the question of media diversity. Without exception, those consulted see a role for themselves in the development of a wider base of ownership and in diversifying the news-rooms. We believe that, with effort, a broad consensus will emerge on such questions as the setting up of, and contributions to, a media development agency, the application of the common vehicle carrier principle, approaches to anti-competitive behaviour in line with the Competition Act and so on.
Personnel has just been employed in this directorate, and we hope in this financial year to start moving towards drafting regulations or, if need be, relevant legislation.
GCIS has made huge strides in placing development communication at the centre of government’s focus. There is a growing realisation that methods appropriate to the environment of a developing country are more suitable to South Africa. This point was driven home when the CEO and I visited India in October last year. Not only did we find their experience impressive; but a basis has been laid for the training of our communicators.
Here again, the emphasis is on achieving a repositioning of our communications paradigm. Instead of simply relying on the odd media release and press briefing to get the government’s message to the public, new forms have to be sought.
One of these has been the evolution of the government’s Report to the Nation. This began in 1997 when the Mid-term Report was produced; which in turn was updated in 1998. These were mammoth tasks that required the translation of long documents, their printing, despatching and final distribution. And we should admit that the process took much longer than desirable in 1998.
Yet we do draw pride from the fact that, from this exercise, we have, for the first time in this country started to use the network of Post Offices where there are permanent GCIS stands, as well as schools, police stations and other centres for availing general government information.
The aim has been to base these documents on the President’s State of the Nation Address and briefings by Ministers. In order to improve government’s reach, this year GCIS decided to embark on a different tack: using newspaper inserts, leaflets and radio programmes produced by GCIS.
To enhance the use of radio, which is critical for deve which will provide brief and focused information to community radio, just as Bua News services community newspapers.
Greater attention will be paid in the coming year to the restructuring of regional offices to carry out systematic campaigns among communities, including starting to experiment with folklore and other forms in their interaction with the population.
Also critical in this drive will be the usage of tele-centres and Multi-Purpose Community Centres. Over time, we believe that the whole of government will need to examine the issue of "one-stop government service centres" which integrate all various strands of government service to the people at least at district level.
Providing a service
The various directorates of GCIS have striven to render a top-class service to government departments.
For example, the Directorate: Research conducted various surveys on information needs and skills audits, and it provided professional advice to government departments. Among other tasks, Information Resource Management answered about 5 000 queries from the public. The Exhibition Section of the new Directorate for Project Management completed 105 projects while the minuscule Publications se 600-page SA Yearbook.
This is besides the work done by the video unit, participation in Lisboa 98 Expo, artwork for many departments usually at short notice, and so on. The current tender to find agencies to implement the bulk-buying approach will further ensure not only a professional service to government, but large savings as well.
A major highlight of the year was the launch of the government website in January this year. We wish to thank members of the Portfolio Committee who joined the Deputy President in ushering in an important tool in the drive to provide the public with information. I should underline that this single entry-point into government sites will only improve in a meaningful way if we get feedback from the pses the site may have.
Details on these production-related activities are contained in the Annual Report.
I should say that, as the election period approaches, questions will naturally arise about government communication in relation to the elections.
The principle always applies that Government Communication (as any other department) does not promote the interests of one or the other party but those of government. Government Communication is obliged to inform the public about activities of government, as well as its successes and the difficulties it faces.
When the election period comes, we suppose that there will be clear guidelines from the IEC and relevant bodies regarding the parameters, if any, of such communication. The GCIS will observe such rules and regulations to the letter.
I should conclude, Madame Speaker, by emphasising that these improvements in the work of Government Communications are only a small part of the broader task of changing the communications environment in our country. Besides the issues of media diversity and direct contact between government and the population that I referred to earlier, we should underline that all this is made possible by the environment of free exchange of ideas guaranteed in our constitution and Bill of Rights.
This gto ensure that its activities are as transparent as possible. This is not only an ideal; but it is also a necessary condition for the people to continue to act as their own liberators, in defence of their rights and in changing their lives for the better. We are encouraged by the steady progress that parliament is making towards processing the Open Democracy Bill.
At the same time, the understanding that government has reached with the media on the application of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act is yet another example of the commitment of this government to providing the most conducive atmosphere possible for South Africa’s media to flourish.
We do all this in the service of the people, as a matter of principle and in deference to our constitution. And we wish to reiterate our commitment to use all means possible to bring government information about its policies and activities to the people.
The Government Communications and Information System will continually strive to improve its service, as its contribution to the realisation of nation-building and reconciliation, reconstruction and development.
Deputy Minister in the Office of the Presidency, Dr Essop Pahad
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)