Let’s Up The Ante Of Government Communications

It is now 19 years since GCIS’s inception and it would be disingenuous to argue that nothing useful has come from its establishment.
Mark Vessels/ AFP/ Getty Images

For the Government Communication and Information System, the challenge has always been to give effect to the "S" in the organisation's abbreviation, GCIS.

Whilst established like other government departments through common public sector prescripts, its origins were informed by a desire to establish a "system" for communicators across government. And if we were to borrow the Oxford dictionary's definition of the term "system", it means "a complex whole or a set of connected things or parts". In other words, the organisation's success was dependent on the ability to enable others related with it to be functional.

Importantly, in the South African context, the reference to government means spheres at national, provincial and local levels, inclusive of state-owned entities at each of these domains. And to that extent, any effort to characterise the abilities, or otherwise of GCIS, has to be all encompassing to these spheres.

By way of example, GCIS must ensure the story of a new clinic is told in a manner that also links it to the building of roads and a transport system which makes the facility easily accessible to the public. Also, without electricity and water, there can never be a fully functional clinic. There is also the question of access to ICT facilities which could contribute to the provision of a world-class facility. And of course, citizens who use this clinic must have a house to stay in and food to eat.

In terms of reputation management and contents of stories crafted, this example speaks to the need for a communication system which can demonstrate an integrated and synchronised approach by government to improve people's lives. It means telling a story which is inclusive of inputs and participation by Ministers responsible for portfolios such as health, transport, energy, ICT and housing. And not forgetting the participation of provincial and local authorities considering that Schedules 4 and 5 of the country's Constitution prescribes concurrent functions between national, provincial and local spheres of government in functions such as ambulance services, planning, health services, housing, roads and transport.

This challenges the system of GCIS to occupy a strategic communications function which tells the story of government by directing politicians to adopt a policy slant that recognises the need for an integrated approach to the delivery of services. An obviously daunting task considering the typical competitive nature of politicians to outshine each other. A role that is bound to be formidable in a climate of divisive and toxic factional politics within the ruling party which can run for months on end. And there is also the context of different political parties governing across the various spheres of government.

It is now 19 years since GCIS' inception and it would be disingenuous to argue that nothing useful has come from its establishment.

Around May in 1998 the Deputy Minister in The Presidency at the time, Essop Pahad, announced the coming into being of GCIS and committed that its mission as "to see to it that all South Africans receive comment and information that enable them to make rational choices about their lives" and that "they can pass on information and views about their activities as they change their lives for the better." This essentially defined the primary indicators of a successful South African system of government communications.

It is now 19 years since GCIS' inception and it would be disingenuous to argue that nothing useful has come from its establishment. In terms of the organisation's 2015/2016 Annual Report, GCIS has a presence in every province and district through efforts such as what it terms Thusong Service Centres. Through these platforms, it has been able "to facilitate direct interaction with the people and coordinate communication in provinces".

To argue its point the report states that "1 920 development communication campaigns were coordinated and implemented through various platforms such as mall/taxi activations, door-to-door campaigns, seminars, dialogues, road intersections and community media" and it, therefore, finds that "more than 47 million people were reached through these interventions."

Other success stories are also listed such as Izimbizo community-outreach campaigns, production of publication such as Vuk'uzenzele, Public Sector Manager and My District Today as well as usage of community media to distribute government's messages. And it is now well-established practice for Inter-Ministerial clusters to conduct media briefings especially around State of the Nation periods.

But are these sufficiently indicative of a system which is responsive to its intended purpose? Can GCIS claim the right of acknowledgement as an enabler of an integrated and synchronised communications outfit that changes people's lives for the better?

What is needed is an annual performance report card on government's communication system which speaks back to the original intent of communications as a strategic as opposed to mere support function across government. Something along the lines of a Sustainable Development Goals Indicators Global Database -- a platform which provides an annual report on progress towards efforts intended to realise set sustainable development goals.

What the GCIS does not answer are pertinent questions about the ability to be responsive to its founding mission which remains relevant to this day.

This approach will encourage an approach where government communication products are not produced for production sake. Such evaluation reports should put the spotlight on individual departments much as it reflects on the extent that a meaningful people-centric, integrated and synchronised communications attitude is prevalent across politicians and their departments.

The standard set when one reads GCIS' Annual Report suggests a need to up the ante of ambition. The report primarily celebrates an ability to present clean audits, assist a department here and another there with its work as well produce a couple of products. What it does not answer are pertinent questions about the ability to be responsive to its founding mission which remains relevant to this day.

JP Louw is a Communications Specialist, Coach and Facilitator. Presenter on Ubuntu Radio and he writes in his personal capacity.


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