Government communications: The need for a strategy

 President John Mahama

President John Mahama

A country with the biggest oil reserves in the world, yet facingan economic downturn with inflation hovering around 70 per cent as citizens throng long queues to buy groceries. Sounds familiar? I am, in fact, describing Venezuela.

A country with a total electricity generation capacity of about 43000 megawatt, yet going through load shedding- which apart from the inconvenience it visits on citizens, is helping drive the local currency to a six year low against the US dollar. No, I am not talking about Ghana: I am, in fact, describing the situation in South Africa.


Blackouts in California

Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan etc. are all facing similar crisis. It is a truism, therefore, that many a country has at some stage, faced and/or is facing a crisis of some sort. Almighty America had its California electricity crisis as recent as 2001, leading to large-scale blackouts. Ghana is thus not alone in the energy crisis situation.

Nonetheless, this is where the similarities end and the differences emerge.

While the governments of Venezuela and South Africa, for example, appreciate the value of public information management, our government simply belittles it.

Whilst the two countries have developed and are implementing communication strategies with a view to winning the hearts and minds of their citizenry, our government simply expects Ghanaians to inexplicably appreciate its activities.

Taking Government Communication Seriously

In 2013, President Maduro of Venezuela announced the creation of “News of Truth”: an obligatory national broadcast, in order to provide information on the activities of his administration, as he believed that private media outlets concealed his administration’s achievements. In 2012, President Mahama promised a “regular interaction with the media”: an obvious agenda-setting initiative but simply forgot about it.

Thanks to Maduro’s deliberate and proactive engagement with the Venezuelan people, his approval rating has since peaked amid a series of public anti-government protests.

Last year, South Africa developed a four year Communication Strategy- codenamed “Government Communication Handbook”, administered by the department of Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).

Key within this strategy is an elaborate crisis communication plan, envisaging crisis scenarios such as the ongoing energy situation for implementation. GCIS itself is located in The Presidency and is responsible for government communications.

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the GCIS attends Cabinet meetings and is the official government spokesperson. For consistency, all public information in South Africa necessarily passes through the GCIS’ editorial scrutiny.


Functional Communications Unit

Back home, our government appears not to have a functioning communication unit, except the Ministry of Communications where public information management has been lumped on the minister and his two deputies-in addition to their core duty of spearheading ICT infrastructural development in the country.

The Ministry of Communications profiles itself as existing “to facilitate the development of a reliable and cost effective world-class communications infrastructure and services, driven by appropriate technological innovations to enhance the promotion of economic competitiveness in a knowledge-based environment.” In effect, the ministry is ICT-biased not government communication-centric.

Whereas the Government Communication Bureau at the Presidency is but a statement-issuing outfit, the Information Services Department (ISD) which has the propensity to champion government’s development agenda through public information management has failed over the years to adapt to our changing times.

Nowadays, almost every Ministry, Department and Agency of government has its own public relations outfit, hence hallowing out the ISD’s famous green and yellow ‘information van’ that used to serve as the ‘mouthpiece’ of the government.

Dumbing-down Government Achievements

Consequently, Ghanaians have been left to rely on an increasingly adversarial mass media for government information. The media has seized this void to disinform and misinform the public by sensationalising the news, thereby dumbing-down government initiatives and achievements and setting the agenda so as to propagate their own and manufacture public consent.

This explains why, for example, the $156 million loan facility acquired from the World Bank last year by the government to finance the “Ghana Secondary School Education Improvement Project” quickly became the “Sanitary Pads Loan” leading to a largely misunderstood transformative programme to improve school infrastructure in deprived communities as well as girl-child school attendance.

Over the past two years, it has become apparent too that in the absence of a well-resourced government communication unit, the President has had to do most of the talking himself. This has helped earn him names such as ‘dead-goat’, ‘the promising president’, ‘Yaaa Mahama Yaaa dumsor’, to name but a few.

By default, the President is the Communicator-in-Chief of his government. Much like in battle-field, having your Commander-in-Chief at the frontline firing and dodging bullets is both suicidal and unstrategic.

Yet President Mahama has had to risk it all at the frontline not because he relishes the limelight but purely because those whose job it is to communicate the issues and sometimes crisis away,often fail him.

For example, not many Ghanaians can identify the face of one Ben Dotse-Malor from a photo parade although this was the man who until recently was, for two years, the supposed ‘spokesperson’ of the president.

Obviously the president is and has always been his own spokesperson but as he speaks for his government, so do many others: from Ministers to Government Communicators; from Party Communicators to Serial Callers; from Public Relations Officers of Ministries, Departments and Agencies to Chief Directors, Technocrats, Members of Parliament, etc. all purporting to speak for and on behalf of the government.


Confusing Communication

The cumulative effect of this state of affairs is what one could refer to as government “comfusication”; not communication for there is no co-ordination of key messages andno consistency in presentation. Spokespersons say different things at different times about same issues on different channels.

There is also a tendency amongst the citizenry to confuse the roles of the National Democratic Congress’ (NDC) communication as that of the government. For instance, in the recent Accra flooding situation and the subsequent call for the demolition of the slump-town of Old Fadama, Ghanaians were not clear as to the government’s position: to demolish or not to, and contrary to statements by the CEO of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, an NDC executive muddied the waters by stating otherwise.Similar instances abound regarding the way in which the ongoing power crisis has been (mis) communicated. Such pronouncements should, be complementary of, and where necessary, distinct to government communication.


The Need for a Communication Strategy

In a rapidly changing environment, coupled with the era of permanent political campaigning, Government Communication should strive to achieve clarity and coordination to ensure that the public is well-informed on matters pertaining to the improvement of their lives.

There is therefore the pressing need for a communication strategy that would, among other things, establish a central government communication system; performance scorecard for government communicators; communication research; campaign development; crises and issue management; development communication; internal communication; and above all, an editorial board to ensure uniformity in the communication of key messages on a daily basis.

The implementation of such a communication strategy would ultimately ensure that government proactively engage the citizenry; communicate effectively and foster informed discussion and decision making towards a better Ghana for all.

By Guure Brown Guure

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