Why it’s im­por­tant to in­form peo­ple about govern­ment work, writes Maropeng Many­athela

African Times - - SPORTS -

At the height of his po­lit­i­cal power, for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki, a renowned or­a­tor known for his catchy phrases, reg­u­larly stressed the im­por­tance of in­form­ing peo­ple about what the govern­ment is do­ing.

One such re­flec­tion was made in Jan­uary 1999, when he was the Deputy Pres­i­dent of the Re­pub­lic, at the launch of a govern­ment web­site. Mbeki re­minded his au­di­ence, in­clud­ing for­mer govern­ment pol­icy guru Joel Net­shiten­zhe, about the govern­ment’s po­si­tion on in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “We be­lieve that it is in­deed the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Govern­ment to com­mu­ni­cate to the South African pop­u­la­tion, and in­deed to the rest of the world, on a con­tin­ual and on an ac­cu­rate ba­sis. And there­fore we have al­ways adopted a some­what crit­i­cal at­ti­tude to­wards our­selves as Govern­ment as to whether we are dis­charg­ing that re­spon­si­bil­ity prop­erly. The head of GCIS Joel Net­shiten­zhe, has just for in­stance re­ferred to the Com­task, a group that was put to­gether to as­sist in as­sess­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness, or oth­er­wise, of Govern­ment with re­gard to the in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion area. And in­deed, they then made a va­ri­ety of rec­om­men­da­tions, which they did,” Mbeki said.

“From the point of view of the Govern­ment, this is im­por­tant be­cause we do in­deed sin­cerely be­lieve that when we talk about a demo­cratic sys­tem in South Africa, which is re­spon­sive to the feel­ings, the ideas, the moods, the needs and so on of the peo­ple, it is im­por­tant that the peo­ple should know what the Govern­ment is do­ing.

It is im­por­tant to know what the Govern­ment is think­ing, plan­ning and so on, so that the peo­ple them­selves can make an im­pact on those pro­cesses in Govern­ment.” Put dif­fer­ently, Mbeki was sim­ply high­light­ing the need and im­por­tance of us­ing in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion to change how peo­ple view the govern­ment.

I am re­minded of his words each time I ob­serve how we go about our work as govern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions agents across the coun­try. While com­mu­ni­ca­tors are gen­er­ally do­ing well, de­spite lim­ited bud­gets and a ro­bust me­dia, we often shoot our­selves in the foot or act con­trary to what is ex­pected of us.

One of the best cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion strate­gies to have ever emerged out of govern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions in re­cent times were the han­dling of the re­cent Lis­te­ria out­break. The worst, with­out any doubt, has been the han­dling of the prob­lems at Sta­te­Owned En­ter­prises (SOE’s) such as Eskom, SABC and SAA.

Let me start with the good. As a govern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tor, I was left in awe when I lis­tened to col­leagues such as Lim­popo govern­ment spokesper­son Phuti Seloba ar­tic­u­lat­ing a well-crafted strat­egy to in­form the pub­lic about what the govern­ment was do­ing to deal with the big­gest out­break of lis­te­rio­sis in the world.

I was re­lieved to see com­mu­ni­ca­tors al­lay­ing pub­lic fears, with a clear and as­sur­ing mes­sage, amid pub­lic panic fol­low­ing the deaths of more than 180 peo­ple in­clud­ing 78 in­fants.

The fact that lis­te­ria was traced to Tiger Brands’ pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in Polok­wane, En­ter­prise Foods, did not help mat­ters. It meant the prob­lem was on our doorstep. But my fel­low govern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tors grabbed the bull by the horn and made all of us proud of our role and con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety.

Un­doubt­edly, our han­dling of the Eskom, SAA and SABC sagas was both am­a­teur­ish and al­most em­bar­rass­ing. I am afraid we dropped the ball. Our mes­sage was un­clear, in­co­her­ent, often con­tra­dic­tory and quite un­con­vinc­ing.

If any­thing, it re­sem­bled panic and a very poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy. In short, our mes­sag­ing on what was hap­pen­ing at th­ese SOE’s –es­pe­cially on their turn­around strate­gies and fi­nan­cial sus­tain­abil­ity -- left the pub­lic more con­fused than clar­i­fied.

You would swear that a hand­ful of our col­leagues are in­spired by US com­mu­ni­ca­tions strate­gist Kellyanne Con­way’s so-called “al­ter­na­tive facts”. Con­way is that ad­vi­sor to US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump who fa­mously la­belled as al­ter­na­tive facts for­mer White House Press Sec­re­tary Sean Spicer’s lies that Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion drew “the largest au­di­ence to ever wit­ness an in­au­gu­ra­tion.” This was sim­ply not true. And her state­ment did very lit­tle to change the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

To be fair to govern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tors, there are other fac­tors be­yond their con­trol that they have to con­tend with. Th­ese in­clude lim­ited bud­gets and fail­ure by po­lit­i­cal heads and high level bu­reau­crats to ap­pre­ci­ate the im­por­tance of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to ser­vice de­liv­ery and the govern­ment’s over­all work. Let’s look at the com­mu­ni­ca­tions bud­get. Ac­cord­ing to this year’s Bud­get Speech de­liv­ered by for­mer Fi­nance Min­is­ter Malusi Gi­gaba, “con­sol­i­dated spend­ing will in­crease from R1.67 tril­lion in 2018/19 to R1.94 tril­lion, rep­re­sent­ing a nom­i­nal an­nual av­er­age growth of 7.6 per cent, or 2.1 per cent in real terms”.

It’s an ir­refutable fact that the GCIS had a bud­get of not less than R1 bil­lion last year. This is where part of the prob­lem is. In sim­ple terms, it means the govern­ment is spend­ing R1 bil­lion to com­mu­ni­cate pro­grammes worth R1.6 tril­lion. It is less than one per­cent of the na­tional bud­get. This fig­ure must by all means trig­ger a de­bate about whether or not R1 bil­lion is enough to com­mu­ni­cate R1.67 tril­lion worth of govern­ment pro­grammes.

It often leads to com­mu­ni­ca­tors fail­ing to fund some of the crit­i­cal cam­paigns needed to keep the pub­lic in­formed about govern­ment work as en­vis­aged by Mbeki and Nel­son Man­dela when they con­cep­tu­alised GCIS. Com­pare our ad spend with the com­mu­ni­ca­tions bud­get of a de­vel­op­ing coun­try such as Brazil, whose com­mu­ni­ca­tions ma­chin­ery is are among the best in the world. Although it’s un­clear how the coun­try spends on com­mu­ni­ca­tions, its an­nual bud­get is said to be higher than ours.

As if that’s not enough, you often get a sense that some col­leagues do not show enough ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the im­por­tance of com­mu­ni­ca­tions to ser­vice de­liv­ery. This is seen mainly when they have to im­ple­ment manda­tory cost cut­ting mea­sures as in­structed by Na­tional Trea­sury, or when con­tin­gency funds are needed to deal with nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or emer­gency sit­u­a­tions.

Which di­rec­torates do they usu­ally set their sights on? In al­most all cases: com­mu­ni­ca­tions! The depart­ments of health and co­op­er­a­tive govern­ment coun­try­wide, for ex­am­ple, are quick to dip into their com­mu­ni­ca­tions bud­gets to fund malaria out­breaks or storms re­lated dis­as­ters.

What they for­get, is that they need the very same com­mu­ni­ca­tions units to in­form the pub­lic about their in­ter­ven­tions to deal with the same dis­as­ters. They need the same com­mu­ni­ca­tors to tell the pub­lic what to do and where to go for help. As ad­ver­tis­ing ex­pert Steuart Hen­der­son Britt once said, “Do­ing busi­ness with­out ad­ver­tis­ing is like wink­ing at a girl in the dark. You know what you are do­ing but no­body else does”. This kind of ap­proach does as lit­tle to change peo­ple’s per­cep­tions about that busi­ness as it does per­cep­tion about our govern­ment. It is de­featist to be blunt.

Maropeng Many­athela is the Head of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Roads Agency Lim­popo, and a PHD can­di­date fo­cus­ing on govern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions. He is the ed­i­tor of Mmileng, RAL’s cor­po­rate mag­a­zine

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