By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor
December 23, 2009
Every astute observer of the Ghanaian political scene will admit that one major weakness that has detracted from the current NDC government’s performance since Day One in office is the inefficiency of its communication (and public relations) outfit. More often than not, conflicting utterances by government functionaries and some overshooting of mouths by others have given worrisome impressions that there is lack of coordination at the Presidency. More importantly, the government appears to have given very little of its good side to the public because of lack of aggressive and well-managed communication efforts. Much of the verbal harassment that President Mills and the government face is the result of this failure to sell the administration. For the government’s image to improve, there is need for drastic action to clean the stables and redefine approaches toward using information to enhance government business and create a better relationship between the public and the government. Although President Mills has rejected calls to shake up the team constituting his administration, it is important for him to know that if the existing lethargy in the Communications Directorate at the Presidency is not halted, it will worsen matters. He must be proactive and determined enough to reshuffle that outfit. More importantly, he must ensure that job definitions are clearly spelt out and the functionaries given clear messages to deliver to the public. Coordination must be handled in a professional manner to give government business a better public impression.
Most governments have a Press Corps as well that is privy to government business and reports same to the public. All these institutions persistently keep the public informed about government business, leaving little room for the people to be denied what they need to know. The public relate to the government through such mechanisms even if with some pinch of salt against the background of suspected propaganda. The functionaries entrusted with disseminating official information have training in their fields and command (not demand) respect for what they are and what they do. They are not handpicked praise-singers or embittered people who regard their presence in government as an opportunity to wreak vengeance on their supposed political enemies. We in Ghana are too pre-occupied with pettiness.
The hard fact may not be palatable to some but it has to be stated that the handling of the Mills-led government’s communication and public relations business is woefully unsatisfactory. Those surrounding the President and tasked with the communication functions appear not to know what to do or they just don’t do it well. There is too much fumbling and bumbling. They are not performing creditably; sometimes, they even stray outside their purview, which creates needless tension.
In fact, it is saddening to know that there is a disconnect in the functioning of these various communication segments of government machinery, especially at the seat of government itself. Take, for instance, the conflict of interest between Mahama Ayariga (Spokesman for the President) and Kwaku Anyidoho (Director of Communications at the Presidency). While Ayariga portrays himself as the pipeline through which the President’s voice reaches the public, Kwaku Anyidoho presents himself as the one in control of that pipeline who should determine how the dissemination should be carried out. Is there any need for these two parallel portfolios, anyway?
In effect, both have been on a collision course ever since Day One in office. We have conflicting statements on government policies, measures, and intentions, which means only one thing—there is no cohesion in the communications segment of President Mills’ administration. This laxity destroys government’s image and presents the administration as a divided house. At least, this is the kind of image that has been seen over the past 11 months of President Mills’ government. Modern-day governance depends on effective public relations and communication management, which the government must not lose sight of.
Let’s cross over to the Ministry of Information, where Zita Okai-Koi has been the target of open calumny (even from government functionaries) for some time now. She has two Deputy Ministers (Agyenim Boateng and Ablakwa Okudzeto) but the relationship between that propaganda outfit and the Communications Directorate at the Presidency is unproductive. It appears each is determined to outdo the other in the mad race to react to public condemnation of government instead of being proactive in selling the government. There is no proper coordination of efforts to prevent what has detracted from government’s performance so far. At the end of the day, the result is clear—a dangerous conflict of interest and lackluster performance, which creates needles hostility, endangers government business, and creates a bad impression in the minds of the citizens. Most governments that fail to retain power often suffer from this kind of major problem: inability to relate productively to the electorate because of appalling communication management. For lack of knowledge about government business, the electorate become vulnerable and gullible enough to buy into anything that the opponents of the government peddle. In our case, we have instances of outright lies being packaged and sold to the electorate as credible material with which to vote down the government.
For failing to sell itself to the electorate, the government is detached from the people and suffers the negative backlash from the rumour machine. Rumours in our part of the world are damaging. Considering the heavy impact of rumours on people, the Acheampong government, for instance, passed an edict prohibiting rumour-mongering. Ludicrous though this edict might be, it underscores the important role that rumours play in human affairs, especially when the people cannot readily have access to credible information about the goings-on in officialdom with which to form their opinions.
It is imperative for the government to take measures to halt this negative trend. Those measures should position government in a better way to benefit from its relationship with the public through the communication effort. President Mills cannot achieve his “Father-for-all-Ghanaians” goal if his intentions are not backed by practical action to implement an open-door policy to bridge the communication gap between his government and the public. At least, if Parliament cannot pass the Freedom of Information Bill for now, the government itself can fill the gap with input from its stables to the people on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, President Mills appears to be satisfied with the status quo, which is unfortunate. Otherwise, why won’t he do anything to sustain the benefits of the “door-to-door” approach that he used effectively in the electioneering campaign period to connect himself with the electorate? In his quest for strategies to do successful government business, anything that will keep him connected with the people should be used to garner goodwill. The upshot is that the people will have the opportunity to get information directly from the source and digest it to improve their awareness of the goings-on in government business instead of relying on the rumour machine and the avowed anti-NDC mass media. At least, they will be informed enough to sift falsehood from whatever they may be told by the detractors. It will insulate them against the misinformation that the opposition peddles to the government’s detriment. It is for this reason that one finds it difficult to understand why the government cannot use all its resources to reach out to the public. Having used direct communication with the people to advantage through the door-to-door approach, one would expect President Mills to sustain that effort; but he has abandoned it and appears to be alienated from the grassroots. As his government enters the second year in office, one expects President Mills to adopt a pragmatic approach in the form of a “Weekly Radio Broadcast” to the nation, which should be a good opportunity to speak on topical issues, set the records right, and always keep the public informed about what his government has done, is doing now, and will do (or not do) in future.
Such an approach will give him a better window of opportunity to reach out to the people and have a better grip on matters than what has been happening so far. It is undeniable that institutionalizing this direct communication with the public through the “Weekly Radio Broadcasts” will make his administration more open and establish a better relationship with the electorate. It will be a novelty in our democracy, although not new in others, especially the United States.
The “Weekly Radio Broadcast” should not be limited to the government alone. It must involve the Opposition too. What it means is that whenever the President broadcasts anything to the public, the Opposition must be given the platform to respond to it. In that sense, the public will have two sides to the issue and get the chance to digest information that will help them make informed decisions on national issues. When the information is in the public domain, it will motivate public discourse and provide several insights from which the government can deduce useful input to enhance its performance. This practice is an integral part of the United States’ democracy, which has helped both the ruling party and its counterpart in opposition to engage in constructive discourse for the benefit of the public. We can emulate this shining example and use that mechanism to feed the public with useful and topical issues of national interest. This interchange should, however, not degenerate into a shouting match or the hurling of insults against each other. The purpose of the programme is to give the public some food-for-thought on crucial national issues, not to attack individuals in a vain attempt to muddy the political waters.
At the lower levels too, the President should ensure that the “Meet-the-Press” series is properly managed, streamlined, and used by the Ministers to throw light on their functions and invite public participation. What we’ve had so far is not encouraging enough. The Ministers can save themselves from trouble if they meet the public often to interact with them on the basis of their Ministries’ performances.
Then, Regional Ministers and the CEOs of the Metropolitan, Municipal, and District Assemblies must be encouraged to hold frequent durbars at which to involve the public in the discourse about their functions. Where local radio stations exist, they must be used for periodic broadcasts too and the local Opposition elements given the chance to respond to whatever the government representatives say.
I am confident that this approach will change the dynamics of our democracy and help the public make informed judgments on issues. This approach doesn’t involve any expenditure of public funds. All it needs is a commitment to make government business transparent to the people. If the government and its functionaries have nothing to hide, they shouldn’t be afraid of exposing government business to the people. Releasing information about government business for public consumption should become one of the lasting tenets of our democracy. When the facts are available, an informed public will not turn to rumours and falsehood as the basis for determining the fate of the government at the general elections.