Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Government Communications in the Information Age by Dr. Jeff Ramsay, Coordinator BGCIS, published in the 22/3/09 edition of the Sunday Standard

source: Republic of Botswana (23/3/09): TAUTONA TIMES no 8 of 2009
The Weekly Electronic Press Circular of the Office of the President
"Democracy, Development, Dignity and Discipline"

D. Government Communications in the Information Age by Dr. Jeff Ramsay,
Coordinator BGCIS, published in the 22/3/09 edition of the Sunday Standard (Botswana) newspaper:

In recent years Governments, like other public institutions, have been scrambling to adapt themselves to the 24/7 communications challenges of what is commonly referred to as the Global Information Age.

The emergence of online communication allows individuals and institutions to instantly access and transfer information across geographic and linguistic boundaries. This has resulted in what some describe as the digital economy. In this view the ongoing global financial crisis differs from past downturns in that transactions are being driven by the channelling of online information as well as the primary forces of production, supply and demand. Perhaps part of the problem of finding a way out of the current spiral lies in a gap in our collective understanding of the relationship between these factors.

In such an era, Government communication can no longer be simply about exposing policies and programmes to the public, though this must remain a priority. As with much of the private services sector, the public service must also embrace the digital revolution by turning to interactive electronic platforms for service delivery. This is the basic
meaning of "eGovernance", which has now been recognised as a development priority.

In Botswana, the challenge of information age transformation has been made greater by the absence of a system to ensure that Government at all times communicates appropriate information in a timely, authoritative, coherent, coordinated and proactive manner, while also promptly responding to its customers concerns, queries and criticism. This is the gap that the Botswana Government Communications and Information System (hereafter BGCIS) was established to bridge. To fulfil its mission BGCIS has been given a mandate to manage and coordinate Government
communication as virtual network bringing together communications units in all line Ministries.

It remains a simple truth that communications works best for those who work at it. Even in the quietist of times it is difficult to overemphasize the importance to any society, more especially one organised on democratic principles, of a sound and proactive approach towards the provision of public information.

The concept of establishing a system to ensure Government provides the public with its positions and perspectives is not new. The roots of modern public communications can be traced at least as far back as the eighteenth century, coinciding with the emergence of the popular press - Thomas Carlyle's "Fourth Estate" - alongside enlightenment ideals of popular sovereignty rooted in the nation-state. As an early American President, James Madison, observed in 1822:

"A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or perhaps both."

With the emergence of new forms of mass media, by the mid-twentieth century there was general recognition that in any system of public administration there is a constant need to appropriately communicate and market, the policies and programmes of the Government of the day before the court of public opinion. In this respect Governments not only have the right, but a responsibility to ensure that their perspectives are known to their customers. The multi-media environment also meant that there was a much greater need for internal communication and coordination to ensure that public information was disseminated in a credible manner.

The advent of online communications has resulted in a massive increase in the demand for public information, while instant networking leaves little room for institutions to respond in an ad-hoc manner. Ideally, communications should therefore become an integral part of policy development as well as delivery. In this way communications plans can be formulated across the cycle of policy development, delivery and refinement.

A 2003 UK policy review went further in its affirmation that Government communication ought to be viewed as an equal and equally respected third pillar in what was described as a governing "trinity" alongside policy making and service delivery. Public service communications must also be viewed as an instrument for dialogue; systems should be able to interactively engage individuals and institutions at all levels. In this respect one is mindful of the old adage that "two monologues do not make a dialogue".

While the words "information" and "communication" are often used interchangeably, they can be understood as signifying quite different things - information is knowledge which may be given out, while communication is knowledge that gets through, thus empowering the recipient.

To be effective Government communications strategies need to embrace an integrated approach to "getting through", from speeches through advertising to public relations, so that, taken together, they make a strategic contribution to policy and delivery aims and objectives. An interactive approach to public communication ought to, thus, go beyond day-to-day news handling to incorporate a portfolio of skills that, as in best practice private companies, also includes research, marketing, web site provision, internal communications and advertising.

The need to take a more proactive approach towards public communications has an international as well as domestic context. With globalisation, the national interest, as well as image, will inevitably be challenged by external media agendas. This is all the more true for smaller, less developed nations. Past difficulties countering the disinformation
campaigns of some international actors can be seen as a warning that we can no longer afford to leave the definition of our global profile to others. Yet, achieving global understanding of Botswana's position towards a particular controversy can not occur when there is domestic misunderstanding resulting from confused, contradictory or insufficient public outreach.

More broadly in a democracy public communications should seek to instil a sense of belonging. The words "communication" and "community" have a common root - communication being that which binds a community together, ensuring mutual understanding as well as promoting common values and shared aspirations.

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