Communications 2000 (Comtask Report): Chapter 3: The current picture: Government communications in 1996


3.1 A quantitative picture

To determine the size and character of government communications budgets and structures, a questionnaire was sent to all ministerial and departmental liaison officers, as well as to provinces.9 SACS provided a detailed breakdown of its establishment and operations, and directors general provided their budget figures. 10

The responses were compiled and assessed by the Development Bank of South Africa. 11

Overall, information was obtained from all departments and provinces and from all but three ministries. All data is for the current year, except population figures.

We had serious difficulty in compiling authoritative data from which benchmarks could be set, and useful comparative data drawn up. For example, the figures for advertising costs by department are not separately counted and we have, therefore, used the industry estimate of R150 million a year. The definition of what constitutes 'communications' is also not transparent - for example, the SACS shows its communication costs for salaries, not for operations. In most provinces, we have only been able to obtain figures for central communications but not for individual departments.

These difficulties themselves underline the need for explicit and consistent budgeting criteria against which costs and output can be measured. The following statistics should be considered the best estimate we could develop given these constraints.

3.2 Staffing

There are a total of 1,095 positions for the communication/liaison functions within national government. Of these the majority (55%) are in SACS, with 2.5% in ministries and the balance in departments (42.5%). In the case of SACS, many of these positions are not filled.

In addition, provinces employ 406 personnel in central communication and liaison functions.

The total number of personnel employed in these functions at both levels of government is 1,501.

We have not been able to assess the numbers of people involved in the communications function at local level. These functions are carried out in a variety of ways - by departments in the larger cities and by officials who perform this function as part of a range of other duties.

3.3 Budgets


Estimating the budget is particularly difficult. Based on the material submitted, the current total for communications expenditure at national level, including staffing, operations and advertising is R294.5m and, through provinces, an additional R85.98m, making a combined total of R380.48m.

This represents an average of 0.31% of total government spending. Based on these figures, national government is spending about R7.2 per capita and provincial govern-ment R2.1 per capita - less than R10 per citizen each year.

The data has provided some interesting material on the breakdown of costs between staffing and operations. For example, SACS spends the highest proportion of its communication budget on staffing costs - over 62%. This is lower at other branches of government: departments spend 14% on staffing, ministries 42%, and provinces 22%.

Within the national departments, priorities vary markedly. The top five spending ratios on communication staffing and operations, apart from SACS, are:

Public Service Ministry     17.05%
DP de Klerk     16.77%
Ministerial Offices     15.41%
President     12.38%
DP Mbeki     12.23%

The majority of departments are spending below 0,2% of their total budgets on communications. (Further details in Annex 23)


Provincial government annual expenditures on central communications personnel and operations vary widely. Provinces provide the major part of the infrastructure, but SACS contributes to this. SACS allocations take into account the relative levels of spending by provincial governments. For example, the highest level of service provision by SACS is to the lowest provided province, and vice-versa.


A calculation of combined expenditure on staff and operations in each province, however, shows the wide discrepancy in service delivery, with very low per capita levels in two provinces with large rural populations:

North West     R7.97
Mpumalanga     R4.21
Gauteng     R2.22
Northern     R2.05
Western Cape     R1.97
Free State     R1.73
Northern Cape     R1.43
Kwazulu-Natal     R1.04
Eastern Cape     R .87


Local government structures, although approached, failed to produce figures on personnel and budgets.

3.4 A Qualitative picture

In addition to the questionnaires, Comtask approached communications personnel at all levels of the public service. The following is a summary of the position we identified.

3.4.1 Ministries12

Ministers are structurally disempowered in the communications sphere. In most cases, they are entitled to one media liaison officer who is available on secondment from the department. Where ministers have appointed media liaison officers separately, these personnel are also subjected to civil service procedures with regard to salaries and conditions of service - seldom relating to their real skills or experience in the field. Where ministerial media liaison officers are seconded from the departments, these personnel may be plucked from the structures regardless of their communications skills or their sympathy with and understanding of the policies and persuasion of the Minister.

Operational budgets are generally held by the departments which maintain media sections of varying sizes. Of 23 respondent ministries, only three indicated that there was a specific communication budget. Most ministerial liaison officers reported that they used departmental budgets for their function.

Because the head of communications is generally based in the department and reports to the director general, both minister and the media liaison officer (who occupies a lower rank than the senior departmental official) often lack the means to change the course or style of communications.

As a result of these structural arrangements, a number of the new ministerial communications staff have already left the service. Salaries are uneven and there is tension between some ministries and departmental media sections.

Because of inappropriate skills in departmental media sections or lack of cooperation, ministerial liaison officers are also often seriously overworked. There are problems of co-ordination between MLOs and departmental staff. Some MLOs receive little or no back-up as they have no staff or assistance of their own. Lack of training and skills sometimes results in poor performance, particularly as regards what are presently seen as prime functions, like media liaison, although there are cases in which the work is excellent.

Despite these findings, there was a majority view among practitioners in ministries, departments and the provinces that the separation between departmental and ministerial functions be maintained, with 57%-64% in favour of separation.

3.4.2 Departments13

There is no clear standard for setting budget levels or defining the functions of the communications personnel. The line reporting structure, combined with a tradition of rigid control of information, severely hampers creativity and responsiveness of communications professionals. In most departments, a communications post is a stage in a career. A communicator in the Department of Justice, for example, may be a magistrate or legal officer by profession.

Departmental officials ranked lack of human resources and finance as major concerns, with lack of clear policy and verifiable information next. Lack of media access and responsiveness were ranked as the lowest concern.

3.4.3 Provinces14

Four provincial administrations maintained a separate communications function for the Premier; two did not. The remaining provincial administrations reported that there was one communication function for the provincial government. 57% were in favour of continued separation between Premier and provincial administration.

3.4.4 SACS15

The head of SACS set out the organisations current dilemma in his presentation to Comtask: SACS lacks a clear mandate. As such it has carried on with the basic structure inherited from the previous government without a clear basis on which to restructure or reform itself. In the course of our work, SACS appeared as a collection of undirected components. In its presentation to us, the Project Planning Unit agreed that no integrated campaign planning advice is offered to departments.

SACS also suffer from low morale and a large number of its senior personnel have applied for retrenchment packages. A majority of the senior staff who made presentations to Comtask were already in this position. By July, low morale among staff and insecurity about the future of the organisation had led to some 111 staff opting for the retrenchment package offered to civil servants. By October, this figure had risen to 160.

The data in the questionnaire indicates a lack of strong interaction with departments and provinces. Although SACS has more than half the entire communications personnel of the national government, it has a low level of interaction with government departments, ministries and provinces. Two-thirds of departments, ministries and provinces had contact 'from time to time' and a further 17% 'not often'. One result of this is a significant duplication of services throughout government. For example, news cutting and analysis is often duplicated by SACS, the department and the ministry because of lack of agreement on the required product. The most common service used is for media releases and publications, such as the year book, and for the annual parliamentary briefing sessions.

The cost of SACS products as provided to departments generally ignores the labour, equipment and overhead costs.

The presentations made to Comtask bear out the results of the questionnaire and the lack of enthusiasm for SACS and its low credibility in government and the media. There is no single reason for this, nor does the responsibility lie solely with SACS. There is an inherited prejudice in some quarters against SACS, based on its history. The lack of a clear set of communication structures and policies within Government also creates a vacuum within which it is difficult for an agency such as SACS to function effectively. At the same time, SACS has not been able to change its image fast enough, nor has it undertaken consultative research and needs identification. This might have earned it more 'customers' within government, or a more creative relationship with civil society.

The problem is most acute in the provinces. According to the provincial communicators, SACS provincial offices operate with varying degrees of efficiency. The Provincial Government Communications Forum expressed serious concerns about SACS, and noted overlap and duplication which, it stated, was to the detriment of both parties.

Some SACS employees favoured the privatisation of certain components of SACS, though there were varying degrees of certainty as to whether these components could survive on the open market.

Notwithstanding the level of criticism of SACS, there is consensus among ministries, departments and provinces about the future priorities they attach to a central agency. 68% of ministries, 74% of departments and 57% of provinces were in favour of a centralised structure. However, each level qualified these statements with the following:

  • the central structure should only provide defined services (such as media monitoring);
  • it should be structured more firmly than at present;
  • it should have no management authority over other bodies.
  • In particular the provinces were unanimous that SACS regional structures should be discontinued and absorbed into provincial structures.

3.5 Other observations

With regard to frustrations at work, all officials consulted shared the same concerns as their colleagues in other government structures. The top three frustrations were lack of financial resources (6 provinces), lack of a clear policy (4 provinces) and lack of human resources (4 provinces). The results for the other structures were:

  • lack of human resources (departments 19/31, ministries 14/23);
  • financial resources (departments 16/31, ministries 14/23);
  • ministries complained of a lack of verified information and a lack of clear policy (6/23), as did departments (11/31);
  • additional issues raised relate to low remuneration, rank and designation (and corresponding acknowledgement of professionalism) of MLOs.

3.6 Some conclusions


The level of resources applied to communications is too low, although we do not believe increased percentages per se are an answer to improved communications. The extreme variations in range of expenditures and the lack of a clear budget and accounting system underline the fact that government does not accord communications sufficient priority. There is no overall government standard for setting budgets or national strategies, nor are there mechanisms for measuring performance. As a consequence, widely differing priorities are given between different bodies.


There is a lack of central co-ordination. Although Cabinet has a Communications Sub-Committee, it does not meet frequently. Press conferences are conducted by the director general of the President's Office, and ministries are sometimes not involved, even where the information relates directly to their line functions. Also, despite the existence of a category in Cabinet memoranda regarding communications around particular pieces of legislation, this is either ignored or given the most cursory attention. Communicators are seldom asked for inputs.


Communication is not taken sufficiently seriously at a high enough level. Although the President's Office runs an efficient communication system, Cabinet does not. Many ministries give insufficient attention to the messages flowing from government, and personnel are not sufficiently empowered or resourced (or often even informed) to do this for them. Even where arrangements are made to create a post for a communications professional, this may be filled by people with other skills. Communications thus remains 'the Cinderella', and government is substantially impoverished by its own inability to take this crucial aspect of governance seriously.


There is no co-ordination of messages between government departments. Advertising campaigns are individually launched, press conferences may clash with one another; sometimes contradictory messages go out. The annual parliamentary press briefing has no centrally defined message. The plethora of corporate images on letterheads also illustrates this point.


There is also a lack of co-ordination of messages on one central issue within a department. Rather than operating on a campaign basis, and making all means of communication (advertising, press, public relations, public events, internal communications, design work, etc) work together to convey and reinforce the message, production is often ad hoc and there is no corporate follow through.

3.7 The MMP survey of government communications16

Comtask commissioned the MMP to monitor a selection of national, regional and local media, including television, radio and newspapers in as broad a range of languages and geographic areas as possible. It was noted that there are a small number of African language newspapers. Current affairs programmes were excluded.

Each item was measured in terms of length and content. Qualitative analysis was measured as positive, negative or neutral. It was noted that news has a commodity value and has to be popular. Thus positive and negative emphasis is determined according to key elements: recency, repetition, placement, use of headlines, language or application of metaphor, depiction of role players and representation. This has an impact on the positive or negative nature of news items.

The methodology utilised by the MMP is recognised internationally and was employed during the 1994 election by the Independent Media Commission. The classification of coverage into three broad categories - positive, negative and neutral - does represent a judgement on the part of the MMP utilising this methodology, and is necessarily general. These findings are useful in that they give a broad overview of coverage, and allow comparisons between different media and departments. They do not prove one way or the other that the media is 'fair' or 'unfair' to government, but give some indication of the way in which different media treat the same material.We have not, in any case, founded any major conclusions on these quantitative results. The MMP survey also provided useful qualitative findings based on interviews with media and government personnel.

3.7.1 What the survey found

News coverage

  • The majority of news about government is 'neutral' (49%). 'Positive' news scored 30% and 'negative' 21%.
  • The President's Office scored highest. This was seen as being due to the news value of the President's Office and also to its excellent media liaison personnel.
  • Media coverage generally favoured transformation stories when not focussed on scandals.
  • The Constitutional Assembly was the most successful single media event. This was due to the nature of the negotiations, ready access to players and excellent media liaison.
  • Foreign Affairs coverage was 'negative', partly due to unsophisticated media analysis and a North American bias.
  • SACS estimates that 90% of government reports are channelled via the parliamentary press gallery. They also established that the mainstream press is well served in terms of access.
  • Media correspondents do not see SACS as a primary source. They see face-to-face sourcing as more important and valuable.
  • Alternative and community media suffer because of a lack of face-to-face sourcing. They are isolated and not well served.
  • Most significantly 80% of government information generated never reaches the public via the media.

Influences on media coverage

There was a convergence of opinion from both media and government communicators that the following factors influence media coverage:

  • openness and interactivity of relationships, both formal and informal, between media and government communicators;
  • the way information is packaged and customised;
  • awareness of constraints faced by media practitioners;
  • comprehensive media strategies (management, timing);
  • expertise and inside knowledge by government communicators.

Structural Problems

Structural problems identified by government communicators include:

  • Poor relations between departments and ministries. The ministerial liaison function is often subordinate in rank to departmental communicators resulting in poor support from departments and a resulting lack of responsiveness to enquiries;
  • Poor co-ordination between ministries. There is a need for corporate identity and liaison over central messages;
  • MLOs in ministries have too wide a range of responsibilities.

Breakdown of Coverage

  • TV coverage was generally 'positive'. Some problems with translation have been identified. Radio enjoys a broader, more diverse audience. Coverage is mostly 'positive', but a lack of live sources has been identified. 702 was the only independent station and was more 'negative', but 'positive' coverage still outweighed the 'negative'.
  • Afrikaans newspapers demonstrated a shift away from National Party support to Afrikaner centred issues: language, education and the economy. Except for Rapport, the Afrikaans print media was not overwhelmingly 'negative'.
  • English newspapers provided substantial coverage. This was especially true of the Citizen, whose coverage was mainly derived from SAPA reports.
  • Daily papers in Gauteng and the Western Cape featured equal amounts of coverage. There was less in other regions, demonstrating that distance from the action may be a factor in coverage.
  • The most 'positive' paper was the Sowetan.
  • Longer deadlines and more analytical reporting styles made national weeklies the most critical.
  • Regional and local weeklies are less substantial in their coverage.
  • SAPA was seen as predominantly 'neutral'. However it was considered to be fairly conservative in news gathering because of costs and under-resourcing. SAPA believes it could operate better if government was better organised.

Main Problems: Media

  • lack of separation in the perception of government vs political party role players;
  • structural separation between political correspondents and beat reporters;
  • under staffing and under-resourcing in media;
  • poor news flow from and to regions;
  • alternative and community press suffer from lack of information.

Main Problems: Government

  • Media communication not taken sufficiently seriously;
  • Structural changes needed for better delivery.


  1. See Annexure 1
  2. Neither are included as annexures. The SACS information is bulky and was found to be impossible to analyse in the state presented. A more coherent, though more superficial breakdown was obtained through their annual report. Information from the departments is available though not annexed to this report.
  3. Annexure 7
  4. Annexure 8
  5. Annexure 9
  6. Annexure 10
  7. Annexure 11
  8. Annexure 2

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