/ 23 April 2020

Time to overhaul the government’s communication department

Jackson Mthembu.
Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu, who is responsible for GCIS. (Gallo)


Every year, the government spends about R500-million to oil its key communication machinery, the Government Communication Information System (GCIS), to ensure communication between government spheres is coordinated, effective and consistent. Informing citizens about government initiatives to address problems facing the country, especially during this time of crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus deficiencies at GCIS. This machine is in desperate need of an overhaul.

Although Covid-19 communication and coordination has improved, chiefly thanks to the tireless efforts of Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize and his team, there were several bungles at the start of the crisis. Ministers were contradicting each other while others sent mixed messages.

Bolstered by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s calm and reassuring demeanour and the cracking of the whip by Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu, who is responsible for GCIS, the government recovered quickly and addressed the blunders. Consequently, social commentators, the public, and the opinionated media have been generous with their praises for both Ramaphosa and Mkhize as they lead us in this battle to contain the pandemic.

This shows what the GCIS can achieve when there is focus on the core mission of facilitating the exchange of views about public policies and actions. Research by global communication agency WPP says that clear messages aid citizen cooperation. According to the report, “The more effort a government puts into communication, the more it clarifies its purpose. And the clearer its purpose, the more effective it is likely to be.”

Clear and purposeful communication is needed now as the government seeks to persuade the frustrated and hungry public to follow its restrictive Covid-19 mitigation strategies. The longer the lockdown persists, even lockdown-lite, the higher the need for better and persuasive communication.

Boots and guns alone are not enough to persuade the public to support government Covid-19 interventions. In the view of Professor Abdool Salim Karim’s Covid-19 presentation, which suggests the likelihood of the lockdown being with us for some time, with legal battles against the restrictions coming thick and fast as well as skirmishes between the security forces and public increase, the real communication test lies ahead. 

One must however hasten to add that the GCIS’s institutional decline was caused by political interference over the years. This triggered leadership tussles, loss of skills and deterioration of fragile relations between the media and the government. This rendered the GCIS powerless to coordinate and influence communication across government departments. The GCIS has been reduced to being a press event coordinator and advertisement placement agency for government departments. This is not the proactive “pulse of communication excellence in government” it seeks to be.

Communication excellence implies being able to direct the day-to-day messages of government departments and ensuring communication priorities of individual departments are aligned to the broader government communication objectives. Once Ramaphosa’s thuma mina euphoria evaporated, the bulk of the government’s communication machinery was quiet. Yes, the president is chief executive of SA Incorporated, but ministers, premiers and mayors should be hard at work behind him. The government has thousands of communicators with their own budgets to support this.

To achieve this, GCIS, which has had no permanent chief executive since 2012, would be more effective when led by an experienced executive leader. Unresponsive, combative communicators, misaligned communication strategies and hiring unqualified, inexperienced, celebrity or politically connected communicators should be a thing of the past.

The new GCIS chief executive, who Mthembu is expected to announce shortly, must command the media’s respect. There is thus a symbiotic relationship between the media and government communicators. In his book, The Media and Political Process, Eric Louw expands on this and how communicators can benefit from the relationship without compromising its mandate.

It is fair to say that relations between the government and media began deteriorating from about 2007. It was at a time when ANC factional battles and resultant government contamination came under heavy scrutiny in the lead up to the 2009 Polokwane conference

Perhaps Ramaphosa’s administration can use the newly found enthusiasm for effective communication to push the much-needed reset button of the GCIS and introduce necessary reforms beyond the Covid-19 crisis. The timing is also opportune because the GCIS is now operating under the recently finalised National Communication Strategy Framework (NCSF). The document is not available to the public, so it is not possible to assess whether it is a 180-degree turn from the one approved by former minister Faith Muthambi.

The NCSF guides government communicators. This document is so significant that it should not be compiled without their input and buy-in. This process could also involve consultations with experienced communicators. It is time to revisit the ComTask report, which led to the establishment of the GCIS, to assess whether government communication is where it was meant to be.

Rejuvenation of the GCIS should include the establishment of a pipeline of future government communicators and induction of new communicators hired at a senior level. Performance management of departmental and provincial communicators should include input from the GCIS.

Certainly, Mthembu, who served as the ANC chief spin-doctor during the tumultuous years of Jacob Zuma presidency, is acutely aware of the need for top-notch communication machinery. It is understood he recently hauled government communicators over the coals for their shortcomings. From the look of things, he has also been able to rein in wayward Cabinet colleagues who were using the Covid-19 crisis to draw attention to themselves.

It is time to use the lessons the government has learned about managing conflicts such as xenophobia attacks and managing elections. The disjointed, reactive and ineffective communication that has plagued public service communications for more than a decade must be replaced by strategic, structured and effective government communication.

Solomon Makgale is an independent communication consultant