Communication scholars have often argued that government communication is not just about developing effective spokespersons with sharp soundbites. It also involves the development of customer-oriented services and building capacities for citizens with reliable feedback mechanisms. Neglecting to provide information to the public is a serious impediment to good governance.
Government seems to be facing a communication crisis, with all the hallmarks of damaging the good image of the country and denting its reputation as a country that complies and adheres to good governance principles. Of course, the President has set a precedent of transparency and accountability, which is a commendable effort in taking away the veil of secrecy, which is the hallmark of government ministries. This should not, however, create a situation that would be detrimental to proper and responsible communication.
That government is running aground its own communication machinery rendering it redundant is a great concern. Of late, government communication has been so incoherent and inconsistent, to say the least, that it appears to be at war with itself. Its public officials have regularly sent out diverse and conflicting messages that portray them in bad light.
Instead of using spokespersons to deal with controversial issues, ministers are hastily making pronouncements that eventually corner them when there is public outcry. In the process, the public becomes confused, angry and reacts negatively to the messages they receive. Trust and confidence between the public and government has been eroded.
A functioning democracy needs a citizenry that is adequately informed on priorities, programmes and activities that engender transparency and accountability because Government communication is more than just crisis management. It entails consulting for policy making, achieving consensus, raising awareness, changing behaviour, fostering transparency and civic education, as well as listening to/feeling the pulse of society.This worrisome trend of government communicating without proper planning or preparation has been a regular feature of late, particularly during the current Presidency, during which Ministers have been trying to stamp their authority, probably in an attempt to raise their public profile.
This year started with the Namibia Airports Company debacle that pitted two ministers against each other, with the fight degenerating into a public spat. This was followed by the land and mass housing controversies that saw the Minister of Urban and Rural Development ban further implementation of the mass housing initiative only to make a U-turn and open floodgates of land acquisition cross the country.
This was followed by Minister of Education, Arts and Culture, who by all indications handled the teachers’ strike badly to the point that the teachers’ union called for her removal. This was a first for a trade union affiliated to the ruling party to demand that the President fire the minister. And then of course, who will forget the Kora Award millions where miscommunication obscured and complicated a very simple issue.
The phosphate mining row seems again to have pitted two ministers against each other and created a national crisis where political parties are joining the fray. Clearly, ministers are communicating without consultation and also without obtaining adequate information to inform their messages. Causing more problems is the ministers’ tendency to hastily engaging the media to buttress their point. It is evident government does not have a communications strategy or plan that needs to provide guidance on how government should communicate and who should communicate on what and when.
The question is: where are the ministries’ communications experts or spokespersons? Who allows ministers to communicate Government policy issues publicly without guidance? Ministers should, indeed, speak last on issues concerning their ministries, so as to correct or revise statements made by their spokespersons.
Thus, a coherent and comprehensive communications strategy is urgently needed to safeguard the Government’s reputation and image and also to boost public confidence in the public officials. One can surely be forgiven for concluding that Harambee is a mere buzzword that holds no water in Cabinet. Where did the principle of team members disagreeing in private but agreeing in public disappear to?
This should not be interpreted as a tool to allow officials to buy faces, but rather to outline that public spats between team members [Cabinet] make the public wonder how effectively a dysfunctional team could serve them.