Why are political communication approaches pivotal to efforts to reform governance systems? This study from the World Bank suggests that reform managers must be able to persuade society. Furthermore, although reform includes technical challenges, the challenges of adaptation require political communication.
Political communication approaches are essential to governance reform. In every reform situation a range of challenging, people-related issues emerge. Above all, the political environment is always dynamic. Reformers may begin an initiative thinking thay will not need a huge coalition-building effort to succeed, only to find that counter-reform is subsequently mobilised.
Many of the barriers to change are not amenable to technical solutions only. These are called ‘adaptive challenges’. Without learning new ways – changing attitudes, values, behaviors – people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment. The sustainability of change depends on people internalising it.
There is a recurring set of challenges that governance reform mangers confront. These include:
- Lack of political will or broad leadership support for change.
- Resistance from middle managers or the professional bureaucracy.
- Vested interests: These are special interest groups opposed to reform. The key issue here is how motivated they are, and how quickly they mobilise to oppose reform.
- Hostile public opinion: many reforms are opposed by public opinion, even if they are in the broader national interest. A few people will oppose a reform that benefits everyone else.
- Unorganised majorities have no voice: Potential beneficiaries from a reform may not know that they stand to gain and are not organised. Those people with vested interests, however, are usually sharply engaged.
- Citizen demand for accountability: There must also be vigilance against counter-reform and counter-mobilisation.
It is important to have a plan for dealing with the challenges from the outset. Often, reform managers wake up to the challenges only when counter-reform has mobilised or public opinion is already hostile. Reform managers should:
- Connect with the national mood: Take public opinion seriously and work to secure genuine political will.
- Engage multiple stakeholders and the public: Without proactive engagement of stakeholders, opponents may gain their support instead.
- Ensure that problems are defined in terms friendly to the reform and that a core set of stakeholders is solidly behind the effort.
- Seek to frame the debate around reform initiatives, in a way that serves strategic objectives.
- Make sure that communication around a reform has a ‘micro focus’ or public support will not be won. The specific concerns of the public must be addressed as well as the positive aspects of a reform. It is important to talk about issues, not politics.
- Seek to build the capacity of governments to engage in two-way dialogue with their citizens, whatever the level of government or the sector.