8 May 2006
The Landmark Communication Conference on Local Government Communication hosted by South African Local Government Association (SALGA) in June 2002 with the support of Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and the Department of Local Government (DPLG) did two things. It provided a solid foundation for institutional arrangements for communication at municipal level. And it galvanised key communication stakeholders across the three spheres of government in an effort to ensure that government communication contributes to local delivery of services and implementation programmes.
That conference in 2002 was an integral if early part of the key element of government's programme, namely the strengthening of local government as the coalface of service delivery.
Interventions such as Project Consolidate and the imbizo programme have provided platforms for regular interaction of communities with government. The local election mandate for government's plan to make local government work better, confirms that communities are ready to work with government to bring about improvements in how local government delivers on its core mandate.
The conference in 2002 placed firmly on government's agenda the task of bringing to a logical conclusion the vision of the 1998 Communication Task Team Report on Government Communication, the vision of a comprehensive government wide system of communication.
Such a system would give coherence to government's communication about its mandate. It allows communication to serve as a strategic tool in the implementation of people centred social policy. As such government communication ensures that government's message is heard while providing the citizenry with ample opportunity to express their views and opinions through a range of communication platforms.
There is still more to be done and hopefully this conference will play a leading role in that. But platforms such as the MPCCs, the Izimbizo, the Vuk'Uzenzele magazine, to mention but a few are shared by government and local government is playing an ever greater role.
A system of government communication
The use of these shared platforms is just the beginning. Progress in finalising the Intergovernmental Relations Act creates the opportunity for the Comtask vision of a comprehensive system of government communication across three spheres to become a reality.
The Comtask report was not silent on municipalities. There are a series of Comtask recommendations which sound the importance of communication at the third sphere. They add up to an approach which says:
- GCIS should be geared to the optimisation of relationships and partnerships within and between the structures of government, as well as between government and civil society. It should develop an infrastructure to ensure co-ordination between national departments (horizontally) between the three spheres of government (vertically) and between other government bodies and parastatals (laterally).
- GCIS should emphasise co-ordination from the centre and communication at the point of delivery and from the level of government closest to the consumer or user of that information.
- The principles involved in the national communications structure, i.e., co-ordination from the President's office with a mechanism involving ministries should also be applied to provincial and local government communication.
- This means meant that at provincial level, communication should be co-ordinated from the Premier's office, which should co-ordinate the activities of the communicators in the various Executive Council (ExCo) portfolios in the same way as at national level.
- The same principles should apply to the larger cities and towns with their own information departments which should be centred on the mayor's or other appropriate elected representatives.
In short there are key elements of a system of government communication which are standardised across government and which should feature in developing municipal communication: central co-ordination with localised communication and information programmes; message coherence; appropriate and customised institutional arrangements; communication as the strategic support to policy implementation and professionalism of government communicators.
Why a ‘comprehensive' system?
The silo operations that characterised government a decade ago are fast becoming something of the past. Over the past five years the functioning of clusters in government has led to more integrated policy development and the implementation. Integrated Development Plans of municipalities inform Provincial Growth and Development Strategies (PGDS) which in turn inform national development priorities, a process strengthened by the participation of provincial Premiers and Director Generals in Cabinet Lekgotla.
This is evident in Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA). Many of the AsgiSA projects that are promoting the achievement of the growth target of at least six percent by 2010, will require intensive local communication about how they feature as cornerstone projects in specific municipalities or as key projects of the Provincial Growth and Development Plan (PGDP).
To speak of a comprehensive system of government communication is to speak of a system that ensures coherence in the communication of all parts and that ensures that all citizens and communities have access to information that adequately allows them to take advantage of the opportunities to improve their lives and to take part as citizens in public affairs.
Key issues and challenges for the conference
There are some particular matters this conference should attend to help ensure that the emerging comprehensive government communication system takes root.
- While the third sphere of government is independent and a constitutionally unique sphere, there needs to be a better interface between municipalities and national and provincial government. At present the flow of information to municipalities from other parts of the communication system is largely random or even by chance. The same goes for their representation at national coordination structures such as the Government Communication Forum (GCF) and equivalent coordination structures in provinces.
- Consequently, in the absence of co-ordination mechanisms, little progress has been made in developing an integrated communication programme where the communication activities of the three spheres of government can be effectively co-ordinated in ways that are essential to better informing citizens. Key co-ordination moments in the communication cycles of national and provincial government are not adequately presented to local government and in turn communication planning cycles in municipalities do not link with those of other spheres in ways that allow us to jointly agree on shared communication initiatives.
A co-ordinated communication calendar driven by key annual communication pillars and nodal events is a hallmark of a well functioning communication system, the efforts being made currently to popularise a communication cycle and calendar for local government interfaced with provincial and national government should be intensified.
- The absence of proper integration structures at local sphere inhibits the ability of national and provincial communicators to adequately provide government communication information to municipalities.
It is therefore critical that the efforts to establish District and Local Municipal Communication Forums be completed during this financial year. It is similarly important to ensure that a way is found of provincial communication structures and those co-ordinated by the GCIS nationally have mechanisms for participation of local government in structures aimed at intergovernmental communication co-ordination. While this may be happening to an extent it needs to be consolidated and formalised.
Such a system, if it functions well, will help address a concern on the part of municipalities that national and provincial communicators sometimes pass unfunded communication mandates onto them as they embark on communication campaigns.
- Finally, there are many programmes, services, products and systems which provincial and national communicators have been able to develop as the system of government communication has grown over the past eight years. It would be critical to ensure that they assist municipalities in developing similar services.
One case in point is the matter of communication strategising where with a greater degree of success, government both nationally and provincially is proving able to effectively conduct annual and ongoing communication strategies. In many municipalities this service is currently outsourced in most cases at extremely high cost whereas this could ideally be handled differently and collaboratively.
At the municipal level and across the system of local government, ideal platforms for the strategic alignment of the communication function are in place. What remains is for us to ensure that the communication system is put in place.
Oversight, monitoring and reporting of all processes associated with this emerging system of local government communication, should be done through the various IGR structures including provincial Premier/Mayors Forum meetings and in the relevant Political Working Group of SALGA.
It would also be prudent for stakeholders in this conference across all three spheres of government immediately after conference, with leadership from SALGA to embark on intensive awareness raising road shows amongst political principals in municipalities to share the resolutions of this conference.
At an operational level, it might be prudent for the GCIS, DPLG and SALGA to assess how the current provincial communication core teams which were established through our mutual collaborative ventures should be strengthened in order to execute their co-ordination tasks more adequately.
One factor contributing to the current mood of optimism that makes us speak of the ‘age of hope' is the realisation that much of the investment made in systems and programmes of government over the past decade are bearing fruit. This includes the contribution of government communication to enabling two way communications between government and the people.
This conference is ideally situated to building on that progress to ensure that municipal communication efforts are strengthened so that all of our people are enabled to become fully active agents in improving their communities and their own lives.
We wish you every success in realising this vision!
Minister in The Presidency, Dr Essop Pahad
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)