GCIS budget vote 1999: Major programmes and current challenges

 21 September 1999

I. Introduction

  1. GCIS enjoyed good working relations with the previous Portfolio Committee on Communications, which was both a partner and an important source of advice. We are confident that this will continue and even improve in the next five years. We wish to congratulate new members of the Committee and particularly the Chair.
  2. Our presentation will give a brief and broad overview of the work of the GCIS on the basis of various elements of its mandate. For purposes of elaboration, we have selected three clusters: co-ordination, training and strategy; development information; and communication research.

II. GCIS mandate

  1. Democracy in our country is underpinned by openness on the part of government institutions and partnerships across social sectors. This cannot be realised without a citizenry that is well-informed about government policies and actions. The task of communication is therefore at the centre of the deepening of our democracy and good governance. The Open Democracy Bill will take this a qualitative step further by obliging government, within certain reasonable limitations, to provide the public with information in its hands.
  2. GCIS was established in May 1998 on the basis of the Comtask Report. Among others, this report called for the establishment of "a communication and information system tailored to meet the demands of the broader democratic human rights environment". "No task is more pressing", Comtask observed, "than finding ways to alleviate the isolation of those who, through apartheid, poverty and present circumstance are deprived of the information with which to take control of their lives and enter into dialogue with government". The senior management of GCIS (the Secretariat) was seen as a strategising body that "should be centrally co-ordinated from as close to the Presidency and Cabinet as possible. In other words, the voice that speaks to the public should be the voice of government itself".
  3. As we indicated in our previous presentations, the GCIS Secretariat identified a number of priorities arising from the Comtask and Cabinet mandate. These are: consolidation of government communication into an integrated system; development communication meant to service the majority of the people; pursuing the objective of media diversity; improving media relations and general policy of dealing with the media; introducing technological improvements in the work of GCIS; and implementing a coherent training programme for communicators.
  4. Also critical was the task of restructuring and turning around SACS, an organisation that had lost senior personnel; that was riddled with demoralisation because of the period of uncertainty in the transition; and whose technology was outdated due to the freezing of major initiatives in this period.

III. Personnel and budget

  1. From a formal SACS formal establishment of over 500, GCIS put a ceiling of about 360 for the establishment. When the Secretariat was formed, there were 230 employees; and with the new intake, the number of persons employed by GCIS stands at about 300. The emphasis in this instance is to ensure a proper balance in the ratio between communication professionals and administrative functions. This applies particularly to the Provincial Offices.
  2. In terms of Representivity , both the management and GCIS as a whole are currently 70% black. Gender-wise, at management level 34% are female, while for the establishment as a whole, 47.2% are female. Within the whole structure, 1% are disabled. Even more critical is the fact that the overwhelming majority of new employees come from a different background: from the media, communication structures in the private sector and NGO’s. This has infused the organisation with a new culture that is reflective of the broader society we serve.
  3. Over the past few months, management has been involved in a process of redefining the organisation, posing and answering difficult questions about the alignment of various structures and practices with the core mandate of GCIS. This process is to culminate during the course of this week with finalisation of proposals about structures and systems. But transformation is, of course, an on-going process. We are confident that, over time, we will have a professional communication agency with the kind of information flows and knowledge management that meet the demands of the times.
  4. As we have previously indicated, one of the challenges that we have had to deal with pertains to finance: this because when the MTEF was finalised, GCIS had not been formed; and thus, the figures for our Vote were based on the needs and activities of SACS which had a narrower scope of operations. A significant number of GCIS priorities, such as development information, integration of government communication, international work, and media diversity were not part of SACS activities. In our interaction with the Department of State Expenditure, we have received a clear understanding that the situation would be continually reviewed.
  5. With regard to training, great progress has been made, with the establishment of the Interim Training Council which includes unions and all three spheres of government communicators. GCIS is represented on the National Standards Bodies, and it has facilitated the setting up of an education and training authority for the private sector media and entertainment industry. The national skills audit has been completed; a training service database is in place; and some of the courses are already under way.

IV. Strategy and co-ordination

  1. Among the abiding challenges for any communication agency is to ensure that the communication agenda infuses the work of the corporate entity it serves. Over the past year, we have seen great improvement in this regard. GCIS planned in the build-up to the elections to ensure that a communication strategy is ready as soon as the government had pronounced on its programme. Based on the President’s State of the Nation Address, a government communication strategy was adopted by Cabinet on 7 July 1999, under the theme, "A nation at work for a better life".
  2. The strategy is informed by the government’s programme and priorities; and it takes into account the overwhelming mandate that government has received. In addition to matters of content, it also examines issues of style: visible accountability to, and partnership with, the people; integrated communication approaches on the part of various clusters of departments; and a sense of urgency and speed in handling critical matters facing the nation. GCIS itself played a role in planning for the opening of the new parliament, with regard to formulation of messages, programmes of briefings and other activities to ensure maximum coverage.
  3. In order to meet the needs of millions of South Africans for unmediated information on the government’s programme, and as has become standard practice with such major events, the speech was reproduced in 14 daily newspapers; one million copies of the booklet have been printed; 4-million leaflets in all official languages have been distributed; a 15-minute radio spot was flighted on more than 10 commercial radio stations and 32 community stations; and the speech was available on the website virtually at the time of delivery. The response to this material has been overwhelming: with scores of organisations taking bulk copies for their own distribution, with Post Offices serving as a critical conduit of government information, and with GCIS provincial offices building enduring partnerships on the ground.
  4. In order to ensure that government as a whole sings from the same hymn-book, the Communication Strategy was thoroughly discussed at a nation-wide Government Communicators’ Conference. The Government Communicators’ Forum has received reports and itself made inputs on adaptation of the strategy to line function departmental activities and these are being brought together into cluster strategies. Meetings have been held on request to brief Premiers and MEC’s, and Provincial Communicators’ Conferences. As professionals in the communication field, we are encouraged by the new sense of appreciation of communication issues at various levels of government. Of course, it will take time for this to be felt in full measure in national discourse, given other mediating factors.
  5. As GCIS we are keenly interested in and are taking active part in promoting Batho Pele as part of our responsibility; but also because the success of any communication strategy and the credibility of any message depends on the practical experiences of the people in their day-to-day interaction with government. The manner in which citizens are treated in government offices and facilities is itself an act of communication: whether this is indeed a government that cares.

V. Means of dissemination - development information

  1. At the last briefing to the previous Committee a high premium was placed, in the questions from Members, on whether we are making any progress in reaching out to the majority of South Africans - as Comtask said, "no task is greater and more pressing" than finding ways of alleviating their isolation. Indeed, commissioned research that we recently completed - and which will be made public soon - shows that these multitudes are starved of government information. A hierarchy of inadequacies express themselves, with those in urban areas feeling that most information is on international matters; those in peri-urban and rural areas being of the view that most information is on urban areas!
  2. We hope that the practice that we have now improved, of ensuring massive dissemination of the government’s programme through "vernacular" and community radio stations, and the partnership with the Post Office and NGO’s will help dent this problem. However as much, if not more attention, has to be paid to the utility of such information. The research that we have referred to bears this out, with people seeking in the main information they can use.
  3. As part of our broader mandate and on account of this research and consultations with the Provinces, the GCIS set out to investigate the feasibility of setting up government information centres in each district of the country. Firstly, we are working on transferring existing provincial offices, where desirable, from city centres to areas where they are needed most. Secondly, our investigations established that many other departments are intending to set up, or have established, district/regional offices - all of them as individual initiatives. The inter-departmental Task Team that we have set up has unanimously reached the conclusion that all these initiatives should be integrated into One-Stop Government Centres. A number of parastatals are part of the initiative; and consultations are being held with various NGO’s and CBO’s.
  4. Once all the research and preparatory work has been completed, the matter will be placed before Cabinet: for the whole of government to pool resources and set up multi-purpose centres in all districts of the country where communities can be provided with integrated government information and services, including utilisation of latest available information technology. Pilot projects will start in the next six months in a number of provinces. This will go a long way in making government accessible to the people, and form part of the two-way dialogue that is so critical to an information society.
  5. However, what is critical is that staff will have to be trained to meet the needs of communities - preferably employed from these communities themselves. Running parallel to this process, GCIS has initiated a project to determine Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) from communities; and answers and "referrals" will be prepared both to assist government communicators on the ground; and to avail the information to communities. This will be updated on an on-going basis.

VI. Media environment - the MDA project

  1. As Members may be aware, this mandate from both Comtask and Cabinet is one that has lagged behind because of problems of getting suitable personnel. This has now been resolved. The aim is to set up a body in the form of a Media Development Agency which will address issues pertaining to diversity, including ownership and distribution. Such a body will, on the basis of broad policy, work out detailed criteria to assist community and other small media enterprises.
  2. The principle guiding the approach of GCIS on this matter is that the final product should be realised on the basis of the widest possible consultation. As such GCIS has gone into partnership with FXI and NCMF and held deliberations with the Print Media Association on the processes of consultation that will culminate in a draft policy for presentation to Cabinet. A national workshop has been held, and consultations are continuing in the Provinces. Within government, a number of relevant departments have come together to share experiences and perspectives.
  3. Our perspective on the MDA is guided by the following principles, among others: an arms-length relationship between benefactors and the MDA; confinement to matters of the media environment rather than its content; seeking as much consensus as possible among role-players; that all role-players should be aware of dangers of selfish interest and strive to manage these into an accommodating self-interest; that the MDA process can only succeed in its objectives if it is combined with the many initiatives within the media establishment; and lastly, the need to learn from international experience.

VII. Other major activities

  1. As will be elaborated later GCIS has been directly involved in the awareness campaign around HIV/AIDS. As the President indicated in the State of the Nation Address research is being conducted on the impact of current campaigns. Assisted pro bono by a variety of research agencies, the research will include testing messages and campaigns that will not only heighten awareness, but also change life-styles.
  2. GCIS has also been involved in many other initiatives and campaigns of government, including follow up to the Jobs Summit, the Presidential Inauguration, the Defence Acquisition Programme, the Y2K campaign, and the President’s visit to the US and UN. We continue to service Cabinet on matters of communication, in liaison with other departments. In this and other respects, we are in constant consultation with the media to establish the most appropriate ways of improving our service.
  3. One of the areas of serious concern to all South Africans has been the portrayal of the country abroad, with the attendant impact on investment, trade and tourism. GCIS is completing a research project on this matter - both qualitative and quantitative - and this will inform the strategy that will be taken to Cabinet. Among the major issues that the research has demonstrated, is the conventional wisdom that what we do and say to ourselves as South Africans forms the main basis of international perceptions of our country. From consultations that we have held, it is clear that, among South Africans in various sectors, including the advertising industry, there is eagerness to work together to develop a massive campaign to promote our country abroad.
  4. Other urgent projects:

4.1. We are completing the tendering process for bulk-buying of research and non-personnel advertising which will save the government resources that have been used disparately.

4.2. We are within the set targets with regard to Y2K compatibility; and from its wide usage, we can confidently say that the Government Website has become an important source of information.

VIII. Key challenges in the next five years

An approach to communication which is built into the activities of government, from policy development and planning to execution, with a corps of professional communicators.

The process of establishing One-Stop Government Centres (MPCC’s) for integrated service to communities, including direct two-way communication.

More effective input into the campaign on the HIV/AIDS epidemic so we can start making an impact on life-styles.

Establishment of the MDA and steady but visible progress towards media diversity.

An effective international campaign to promote South Africa based on integrated government efforts and partnership with the private and other sectors.

Presentation by Joel Netshitenzhe, CEO: GCIS