UMI: Gov’t communication must take a seat at the high table

UMI: Gov't communication must take a seat at the high table
File image of State House| PHOTO| COURTESY

By Umi Wabomba

As a young girl growing up, I remember vividly the prominence of the national broadcaster radio and later on black and white TV we had in our house.

I mean we had to listen to the 1pm and 7pm news broadcasts. The patriotic songs that followed immediately after were a lesson in touching the heartbeat of the local man on the street. Wakulima Ongezeni Kilimo, Lugha ya Mama, Tupange Uzazi and the like.

With time, I learnt that there was even a bigger reason why older and important people listened to the national broadcaster religiously. Specifically the 1pm lunch time news. The government ministers had no security of tenure. One could be hired or fired in a news bulletin.

These broadcasts were the official mouth pieces of the government of the day and the public knew that one missed listening or watching them at their peril.

The public didn’t necessarily understand the intricacies of government communication and structure or hierarchy but they knew that there was only one voice of the government and if it spoke you listened. You didn’t have to like what the voice was saying. Heck you didn’t even have to like who was saying it. The voice was credible. It had authority. It silenced and drowned all other voices. It took its place. It delivered the message of the government of the day.

Enter the technological revolution and changes in government regimes and that voice that was so clear and commanding started to lose its luster. Suddenly the public had options. One didn’t have to listen to the government voice any more. In fact the situation became a little confusing. Who was government and who was speaking on its behalf? New offices with lofty titles came up. Government Spokesman, Government Spokesperson, State House Spokesperson and many others.

Sadly, that remains the state of government communications. It’s akin to the tower of babel or worse still in deep silence like the proverbial sea that has high tides then retreats. There are many voices competing for the ear of the public claiming to speak on behalf of the government.

What is baffling despite the pressures and excesses of the old political order, there was something telling about how it delivered its communication. There was fear of not towing the line but the public was never left guessing about what its government was doing.

Government communication was discussed at the highest office in the land. All government officers understood that they needed to speak in one voice. The chief in his baraza in the village and the government minister in a high tower at a world capital. The packaging was different but the tone and message was not contradictory.

Here in lies the challenge. When one speaks to government officers today, they have many tales of the great work the government is doing. Some even sound exasperated that the public is so ignorant or suspicious of what they do. They forget an obvious truth.

The government is not communicating its messages in a clear and concise manner. It may be assuming that it has communicated yet it might be a case of the intended and actual communication not being in tandem.

One wonders whether the role of government communications is given priority at any ministry let alone at the high table in the land. Are government communications officers given the authority, capacity and tools to effectively communicate?

Are they involved in strategic meetings so that they are in the know to articulately espouse the intentions of the government to its populace? Or are they relegated to writing speeches, putting up tents and calling the media to events yet they are not involved in the strategic thinking that saw the need to invite the media in the first place.

What was the ingenuity that previous regimes used to communicate in a way that felt the pulse of the nation? How come government communications seemed to be way up there and no government officer could contradict the government position.

The opportunity is not lost though. The communication officers in government must step up their game to be felt and almost be indispensable. They must add value and lead from the front by packaging government messages in attractive, efficient and technology savvy platforms. They must listen to the public and offer messages that resonate with the needs of the public.

The government hierarchy structure on its part must intentionally place communications at its high table for indeed that is the only way the public will start appreciating the voice of its government.

Umi Wabomba is a member of the Taskforce on the improvement of government information and public communications functions to align them with emerging public sector dynamics and expectations

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