How does government communications capacity contribute to good governance? What are the communications functions of government, and how can they be developed? This report from a one-day roundtable held at George Washington University summarises discussions about the role of communications in government, cases of success and failure in government communication from around the world, and the promotion of this area of work in development. It highlights the importance of addressing incentives for government communications, the role of ethics in government communications, and the need to develop an appropriate enabling environment.
Providing citizens with adequate information on priorities, programmes and activities contributes to government legitimacy. To be legitimate players in public spheres, governments need to develop and maintain effective communication capacity. This allows them to take stock of citizens’ needs and preferences, and to foster a more deliberative public space for multi-stakeholder participation, informed policy debate and development effectiveness. Key areas for consideration include:
- The functions of government communication: There are three primary functions of government communication: informing, advocating/persuading (for policies and reforms), and engaging citizens. Effective public communication efforts enable citizen participation, but many countries lack a culture of consultation and participation, exacerbated by low literacy rates and lack of information provision. In many cases, countries not only lack capacity in communication between government and the public, but also internal communication among government agencies.
- Incentives for government communication: Governments need to be aware of the incentives for communicating. They often do not realise that communication is part of their job and is fundamental to their functioning. Lack of communications budgets, secrecy laws, lack of elite will to share information, or the preference for communicating through state-owned media, can be disincentives for government to develop communication capacity.
- The role of ethics in government communication: Government communication involves not only sending out persuasive messages to the public, but also explaining working policies, creating awareness of the rights of citizens, and developing mechanisms that enable two-way communication between citizens and government. Donors and governments need to understand that government communication is not propaganda.
- The enabling environment for government communication: Well drafted, legally binding and enforceable policies on access to information are crucial factors of an enabling environment, along with media literacy and strengthened media organisations.
- Communication capacity in government: The lack of professionalism in government communication in developing countries presents a serious challenge. Many governments lack the infrastructure needed for effective communication.
Supporting government communication capacity as ‘information development’ may be a useful approach. There are two sides to information development: First, a culture of disclosure needs to be created; and second, governments need to have relevant information available. Further recommendations include the following:
- Political ‘buy in’ from leaders, who may perceive communicating with the public as a risk, requires demonstrating the contribution of government communication to improved governance and development outcomes. This can be done by highlighting success stories and models in which government communication has improved the effectiveness, responsiveness and accountability of governments.
- Government communication capacity can be increased by drawing on traditional systems of communication already in place and developing professional associations among spokespeople. Coordination among government departments is also necessary. Methods that are interactive, citizen-based and focus on peer-to-peer learning are important tools in building communication capacity.
- It is important to address the lack of journalistic professionalism. In some countries, governments are unwilling to work with the media because they don’t trust them to report objectively. Therefore, journalism training is a component of government communication capacity.
- Government communication is as much about attitude as it is about aptitude. In some cases, governments totally own, manipulate and/or terrorise the media in their country. Institutional culture often plays an important role in shaping a government’s approach to communication. Innovative approaches are needed to build trust and find common ground among NGOs, media and government.