Letter to the Editor: GCIS strikes back
In an earlier article, Ranjeni Munusamy criticised what she termed the elitism of government communication in South Africa, where only a select few who could afford it were privy to crucial information about our democracy, as well the non performance by a R429 million-a-year Government Communication and Information Service (GCIS). Unsurprisingly, the CGIS disagrees. In the interest of broader debate, we publish their letter, by PHUMLA WILLIAMS, acting GCIS CEO, in its entirety.
In her column in the Daily Maverick on 01 February 2013, Ranjeni Munusamy erroneously attempts to paint a picture that the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) does not adequately fulfill its mandate of communicating with the public about government policies, plans, programmes and achievements. This assumption is flawed on a number of levels and needs to be corrected.
Firstly, government has a responsibility to reach every citizen and ensure that each citizen is aware of its policies, programmes and interventions to improve their lives. This is enshrined in section 32 of our Constitution, which states that every citizen has the right of access to any information held by the state. As a result government has a responsibility to use every platform available to reach every citizen in all corners of our country.
Secondly, government has a responsibility to ensure that there is media diversity and development including diversity of voices. It is also for this reason that GCIS embraces all platforms, not limited to the media, to reach all citizens irrespective of their location, gender and preference of media consumption.
In this context, GCIS should always be viewed as a system that cuts across national, provincial and local government, not as an organisation that exists in isolation. In this organisation, we at all times interact with departments, provinces and municipalities to assist them to communicate.
Against this background, the GCIS, in conjunction with other government departments, is at the forefront of taking government to the people of South Africa. GCIS ensures that South Africans are informed and empowered to monitor, evaluate and contribute meaningfully in our democracy. This is effectively achieved through a number of interventions such as the bi-weekly facilitation of the post-Cabinet media briefings, which provide the public with a clear understanding of Cabinet deliberations and updates on the programmes and policies of government that affect the country and the everyday life of South Africans. In addition, regular media briefings by various government ministers are hosted and facilitated by the GCIS. These create an opportunity for ministers to address current issues as well as articulate and update programmes affecting their respective departments.
There are also frequent cluster media briefings by the various ministers or deputy ministers. Government departments are clustered according to key priorities to encourage integrated planning, effective decision-making, information-sharing and sound intergovernmental relations. In total there are seven government clusters, and they all regularly provide feedback to the public through briefings facilitated by the GCIS.
But it goes even further than this; as far back as 1999, the GCIS identified that access to information, services and participation by citizens, particularly in rural areas, could only be made possible by taking government to the people. The Thusong Service Centres are one-stop, integrated community development centres, with community participation and services relevant to people’s needs. They aim to empower the poor and disadvantaged through access to information, services and resources. By the end of March 2012, 171 Thusong Service Centres were in operation, making a crucial contribution to the expansion of infrastructure for access to information and services that citizens can use.
Apart from continually striving to serve the information needs of government and the public, the GCIS also has a stellar record of corporate governance. For the past three years the GCIS has received an unqualified audit report. Over the same period it has recorded almost 98% to 99% spent on allocated funds.
In 2009 the GCIS moved to provide an in-house capacity for media buying for the entire government. This move allowed it to build government’s own capacity, while doing away with the middle-man structure in traditional media buying.
Very few people are aware that photos or visuals that they regularly see in mainstream print, on television and in online media are often provided to the media by the GCIS. Its dedicated teams of photographers and camerapersons regularly capture newsworthy events and provide these to the media free of charge.
Undoubtedly the GCIS is a multi-faceted organisation that provides value on many levels and continually strives to communicate the work of government. However, to reach every single person through its platforms is not always possible, and government is constantly looking at new and innovative ways to reach a larger audience.
It is often said that face-to-face communication is the surest way to impart a message successfully to an audience. The combination of human contact and the audience being able to respond to, seek clarity or question the presenter or speaker allows for the optimum transfer of knowledge.
In a perfect world this would be the first and only choice to convey vital information to the public. However, the opportunity to speak to the public face-to-face does not arise all that often, due to everyday realities such as work or distance or the availability of the audience.
For government, bridging this gap is of vital importance; speaking to our citizens and informing them of progress and challenges is top of mind at all times. Traditionally, governments around the world have turned to the power of the media to speak to a larger audience. In South Africa this is no different, as government leaders and spokespersons regularly appear on radio or television or are quoted in newspapers or online platforms.
GCIS is of the view that every available platform which can contribute to a better-informed citizenry must be explored. As such, government occasionally chooses to impart important messages to the public via advertisements in print or on radio or television.
All these platforms have a role to play and help to get the message across to large and diverse audiences. But what they often lack is the ability for audience feedback and for that face-to-face interaction.
What government has been seeking to further enhance its communication is a medium that allows for the intimate interaction of a town hall meeting or imbizo, yet at the same time reaches a wider and diverse audience.
Thus the concept of the New Age breakfast meeting was one which appealed to government as it presented the best of both worlds. Government leaders could interact with the audience in attendance and at the same time reach millions of viewers watching on television. As a platform it allows government to speak directly to a variety of stakeholders such as business people, thought leaders and of course the people of South Africa.
It allows the audience to engage directly with government leaders, to probe them and obtain a deeper understanding of policies and programmes. At the same time the television audience has the opportunity to hear first-hand about issues which often directly affect them. Ms. Munusamy, in her article, gives an impression that government ministers and the president do not use platforms available to them from the SABC. The New Age/Morning Live platform is one of the platforms available that government uses to communicate with citizens. Ms. Munusamy conveniently chose to forget that the president, following the State of the Nation Address, has a SABC interview where he further elaborates on his message.
This platform complements a suit of other platforms that are used by government to communicate with its citizens and no preferential treatment is given to any platform whatsoever.
At the end of the day, an informed citizenry is good for democracy, and we will continue to strive to engage with people on every available platform. We are fully aware that no single platform can reach every person, therefore we will continue engaging face to face, via all media channels, in Parliament and every other available platform. The government communication system is a well-functioning system with its own weaknesses and greater success. The battle of ideas, in a contested society such as ours, cannot be won only through one platform but by use of all available to our citizens. DM