By Kyetume Kasanga
President Yoweri Museveni last month directed that full-time communication officers be availed in all ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), supervised by the merged Ministry responsible for information and communications just like the Finance ministry does accountants. He believes this will facilitate effective communication of government programmes through multimedia platforms such as television, radio, newspapers and social media. The move will also stop duplication of government communication efforts, ease coordination of communication players and rationalize resources.
Communication officers must inform the people of progress in their respective MDAs’ programme implementation, within the existing regulatory environment. They must contend with meshing the sometimes conflicting demands from journalists and civil society, who advocate liberal access to official information, with the need for public officials’ breathing space and confidentiality to carry out their work.
In line with Article 41 of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda that entitles citizens to information in government’s possession, the Government, in conjunction with the Canadian Province of Ontario and the Canadian Institute of Public Administration, organised a joint Leadership Forum of ministers and permanent secretaries in Kampala. The need to establish an effective strategy for improved government communication to advance wealth creation and socio-economic transformation of this country became apparent during the Forum.
It should be noted that despite many government policies and initiatives formulated to increase household incomes for socio-economic transformation, the understanding of such policies and uptake remains a major challenge to the achievement of national development objectives. To boost responsiveness to the diverse public information needs, Cabinet approved the Government Communication Strategy. Its import is to provide an important framework for the Government to build capacity to advance the country’s socio-economic transformation through effective communication.
Today’s information needs have been upped by the public’s desire and right to take their destiny into their own hands. Such communication helps to increase accountability of public officials, and enables citizens to formulate their own opinions about issues affecting their lives. Even former communist countries such as the Czech Republic, Moldova, Estonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovakia, which were not keen on information dissemination to the public, are grappling with heightened information demands. Uganda cannot be held back.
Civil servants are usually the main point of contact for people who wish to access information in government coffers. Indeed, they act as gatekeepers – responding to people’s requests, picking out the right pieces of information for them, or training people how to use internal databases and catalogues to extract information. Although most visible in times of crisis or big news events, communication officers work continuously behind the scenes. They are concerned with managing information to make it easily accessible by liaising between the government entities and the public, and answering queries from the media, among other tasks.
Typical functions for the government communication officers include monitoring media coverage of public affairs to set any record straight, briefing and advising political leaders on programme implementation, managing media relations, informing the public directly, sharing information internally, formulating communication strategies and campaigns, and researching and assessing public opinion on particular issues for achievement of national objectives. In the process, they raise awareness of the different roles of decision makers and purview of state institutions, the availability of social services and wealth creation opportunities, noteworthy trends, and risks of which everyone should be aware.
Information is a valuable resource. Consequently, it should be managed and kept secure, but easily accessed and effectively distributed. The President’s merger of the relevant ministries acknowledges the fact that the new line ministry should be the lead agency on government information dissemination, public relations and advocacy. Therefore, as visible figures at the interface of government bureaucracy and society, communication officers should make a significant contribution to the societal wellbeing by disseminating relevant information in their entities.
Effective government communication will not only foster public accountability but also help to guide the citizens on their own roles in wealth creation. Through all communication channels and platforms the public must know what the government’s role is away from theirs. As the President has noted, it is mainly awareness and advocacy that is lacking for wealth creation programmes to take root.
Advice to Government Communication Officers
- Treat all journalists the same way, regardless of their organisation’s bias.
- Be sensitive to journalists’ time limitations and deadlines so you do not ramble on when speaking to them.
- Send to media houses advance information on key events.
- Accept that it is not the job of the media in a democratic state like Uganda to print all your official press releases verbatim unless media space is duly paid for.
- Be more proactive with reporters instead of sitting back to expect calls from them; give them story tips on what your ministry, department or agency is doing to achieve the national objectives.
- Make more effort to find the right answers to journalists’ questions, and always return calls and e-mails promptly.
- Provide information in a clear, succinct and easily digestible format.
- Call a press conference only when there is real news to give the public, or else the media will shun you.
The author is a Principal Information Officer at the Office of the Prime Minister