GCIS - Coming out of its chrysalis
The GCIS offices have become centres of frenetic activity. With the organisation's official launch on 18 May 1998 when the books of the old SACS were closed and the GCIS opened, staff enjoyed a major boost of confidence in their future.
This buoyancy was further enhanced when the Secretariat, after lengthy discussions about the nature and size of the GCIS, decided to retain the majority of staff. The fact that employees had continued producing many excellent examples of communication while the future of the organisation was being debated, served to indicate their commitment to the organisation, its future and to communication.
To cite but a few examples of the dedication inherited by the Secretariat:
- a one-person Art Studio trying to meet the demands of a number of departments who continued making use of the organisation's services
- a Communication Centre running a clipping service seven days a week, despite the dramatic drop in number of personnel
- a tiny group of individuals working at setting the foundation for what is rapidly developing into an effective information service - South Africa: Government Online.
This commitment was not the only feature of the organisation which the recent appointments to the GCIS management found. Because of the length of the Comtask investigation, many employees suffered from despondency and uncertainty. There were several negatives which had to be dealt with urgently. These included:
- The dramatic efflux of almost the entire senior management. In March 1998 the organisation had only four directors in place!
- An IT system which had deteriorated to a situation best described as tragic. With the large number of people leaving the organisation, meeting its IT needs was left to one over-worked soul.
- There did not exist a realistic benchmark around which the budget could be developed. Thus the MTEF prescripts were being mechanically adhered to.
The Secretariat thus set about urgently addressing several internal organisational issues. These included:
- Working through a broad strategic plan which helped define what the GCIS establishment should be. The Secretariat was committed to the Comtask principle of a lean communication organisation. The establishment was thus reduced from the 501 of SACS to about 360. There was also emphasis on getting the ratio between the actual communicators to administrative function correct. This is an area which requires continuous attention.
- Whilst being committed to the broad MTEF, trying to engage in a zero-based budgeting process which would reflect the priorities of the GCIS. While the Cabinet Memorandum No 8 of 1997 had indicated that the SACS budget was to be used as the starting point for the GCIS, it did allow the new organisation to make presentations for additional funding.
- Deciding on the future of the employees inherited from SACS. On the basis of recommendations of each Directorate it was decided to retain all 230 employees. The challenge was to then fill the remaining posts. About 50 posts were advertised and filled in a matter of months. It is envisaged that the rest of the posts will be filled in the next financial year.
- Upgrading all the IT equipment, making the system Y2K compliant and ensuring that the GCIS production equipment was digital based - the latter being the trend in the industry.
Apart from its internal agenda, there were a number of other areas which the organisation had to address. Primary amongst these was moulding the various communication efforts into a single system. This approach lay at the core of the Comtask recommendations.
In the lead up to the 18 May 1998 Budget Vote, the organisation actively consulted with provincial and departmental communicators and held a consultative conference on May 6. The consultative approach continued to prevail with a number of mechanisms becoming formalised:
- A fortnightly meeting of heads of communication and Ministerial liaison officers. This meeting, now known as the Government Communicators Forum, served to prepare for upcoming Cabinet meetings and communication around Cabinet decisions.
- Meetings with the directors of provincial communication. The holding of formal, regular meetings is currently being explored.
- A second communicators consultative conference where it was agreed that this shall become a biannual event. A delegate to this conference commented that communicators were beginning to develop a sense of 'family' through these interactions.
- BUA magazine, a quarterly publication for government communicators.'Communication clusters', roughly along the lines of Ministerial clusters, are becoming features of the system.
Hand-in-hand with the strengthening of the government communications system was the need for the GCIS to provide a service to the Cabinet and government departments. The GCIS was involved in the preparation of communication strategies for, 'inter alia', the HIV/Aids campaign; the Job Summit; the Anti-Corruption Conference; the Non-Aligned Movement Summit, and the handing over of the TRC Report. The GCIS also acted as a consultant to several departments including the Department of Finance; the Film and Publication Board and the South African Revenue Service. A communication strategy developed by the GCIS for government was approved by the Cabinet in October 1998. The GCIS threw its weight behind the voters' registration drive when it produced radio and television advertisements particularly targeted at the youth.
Much attention was paid to improving relations with the media. A number of innovative forms were utilised including the institution of monthly press breakfasts where Ministers would provide in-depth background briefings, and consultation with journalists on the future of the Parliamentary Briefing Week. Community media were also placed on an electronic network for government and development news. The considerable increase in the size of the Media Liaison Section (in March it had only two communicators) has meant that the GCIS can better service the needs of departments and the media. The community-based telecentres of the Universal Service Agency are seen as an important hub in bridging the gap between government and the people of South Africa.
Development communication continued to occupy the GCIS agenda. If the organisation erred this year on the side trying to define this strategy more than acting around it, we hope that the next financial year will see great strides being made in this area. A radio communications unit has been established to meet the needs of community radio as an early contribution to development communication.
A major research project is under way to define the information needs of the various communities which make up the South African population. We hope that the results will help us service the public better and use the media preferred most. The regional offices have been transformed into Government Information Centres (GICs) committed to grassroots communications.
Ensuring that material which has been the product of many creative minds and that has been subjected to all manner of research, eventually gets into the hands of those for whom it was designed, requires a good distribution system. The GCIS regional offices have been vital in this communication chain, resulting in 1,8 million copies of the Government Report to the Nation '98 being distributed through this channel alone. A major breakthrough was the distribution of the Report through post offices.
The GCIS has taken the first tentative steps towards developing a training strategy for government communicators. An audit was conducted of the areas of competency displayed by the various communication components. There has been collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat in the providing of training. A six-month contract appointment has been made with the brief to set up a training curriculum which is within the NQF and which serves to professionalise government communicators.
The GCIS has been co-ordinating the work of several departments to develop an international marketing strategy. An audit was carried out amongst government departments and provincial communicators to determine the extent to which international marketing of South Africa is occurring. The need for comprehensive, co-ordinated strategy became clear through this audit. A tender was issued for the first phase so that research can begin in this very vital communication exercise.
Consultations with media owners and community media continued in an attempt to move towards defining a government media policy. With the appointment of personnel to the Directorate: Policy Development, policy formulation can be expected to take off in earnest.
The launch of the government web site is surely one of the most important events in the period under review. Carrying with it the potential of bringing government ever closer to the people, the launch was marked by enthusiastic reception amongst the media and other users of government information. The responsibility of having a comprehensive electronic government information service rests not only on the shoulders of the small dedicated group at the GCIS, but all users who can provide feedback about their needs and requirements.