How important is a government’s capacity to communicate effectively with its constituents? What the role does communication play in good governance? This policy brief argues that good communication is a fundamental function of modern governance. Effective two-way communication between the government and the public strengthens legitimate public authority. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of attaining good governance outcomes.
Governments have an interest in instituting regimes that are capable, responsive, and accountable. Providing citizens with adequate information on priorities, programmes and activities increases the likelihood that the public authority will be perceived as legitimate by citizens and stakeholder groups, contributing to stabilising a country’s political situation. The communication function underpins many processes of modern leadership and is complementary to various forms of technical expertise. In many cases, successful and sustainable public sector reform requires persuasion: seeking support from elites, encouraging change processes within bureaucracies and striking an ethical balance between listening to and leading public opinion.
Communication requirements often pull government institutions in opposite directions. On the one hand, governments must operate in an impartial way to maintain credibility and meet transparency and accountability expectations. On the other hand, government institutions must also act as advocates for their own policies. Thus, a central challenge for government communications is to remain credible and trustworthy, while advocating policy in a contested communication environment.
Strengthening government communication capacity involves building up the capacity of agencies, officials and bureaucrats to engage in two-way dialogue with their citizens, whatever the level of government or the sector. It can:
- Enable a government to take account of its citizens’ needs and preferences and foster public space for participation and informed policy debate
- Lead to enhanced public ownership of and support for policies and implementation
- Result in more legitimate public authority and improved governance outcomes, under certain conditions
- Increase the internal coherence of policies
- Have a disciplining impact on policy work and help coordinate communication within governments: in order to communicate effectively with external audiences consistent internal information is needed.
Two-way communication with citizens involves a complex set of interlocking structures, processes and practices. These include the following:
- Providing all interested parties with access to government information and data. This should be a coordinated effort, usually initiated by the executive branch. Tasks should include gatherÂ¬ing and sharing information, organising records, developing the ability to deliver information on request, setting up systems for data capture and internal and external access.
- Providing the public with access to technical analyses of government priorities and performance from multiple perspectives. This can be carried out by drawing on the expertise of a combination of independent research groups (such as universities and think tanks), technology-competent civil society organisations and government analysts.
- Popularising analysis of government performance. Frontline government agencies and their spokespeople at both national and local levels, as well as specialised media outlets, can be charged with this task.
- Engaging the public. This can be done through mainstream media outlets, national government agencies, school systems, religious groups, and other civil society organisations.