THE LEADERS' REPORT

Conversation

Shifting from communication to consultation

Our research suggests that government communication is still primarily a linear, one-way connection with the public. Respondents indicate that government communication operates as a tool to disseminate information, not to consult or engage.

The reasons they cite for this vary and include:

  • An over-reliance on mass-media platforms
  • Skills and capabilities limited to media management
  • Insufficient access to digital tools
  • Political and organisational reluctance to engage with and respond to the public.

The Detail

We believe that government communication will fulfil its potential only when it purposefully creates dialogue with citizens. Many respondents to The Leaders' Report suggest that government leaders do not believe consultation is a legitimate function of government communication. Many reported working in an environment where politicians and senior public servants regard dialogue and conversation as "ceding control to the masses" and inherently undesirable. While the majority of government communication leaders we interviewed disagree, only 14% of respondents say they have received any training in citizen engagement.

"Government communication is focused on informing, advocating, persuading and engaging citizens. The ability to 'push out' information is necessary, albeit deeply insufficient. The willingness and ability to speak with citizens must be coupled with a willingness to listen to them, incorporate their needs and preferences into the policy process, and engage local patterns of influence and trusted sources of information." – Communication Leader, Multilateral Organisation

Acknowledgement of the need for dialogue is not universally lacking, however.

"Try going home and never listening for six weeks: see where this gets you in your personal life." – Communication Academic, Australasia

While 60% of respondents report a skew towards purely one-way (organisation to public) flow of information, our data also reveals a directional shift toward mores two-way engagement. Thirty six percent of high-performing communication functions believe they have a balanced two-way flow; 10% believe they are skewed towards the public.

Respondents were asked to identify the channels most commonly used to communicate with the public today, and those they thought would be most important in five years. Their answers reveal a clear anticipated shift towards channels that will allow for dialogue (social media and civil society partnerships, for example) in ways that newspapers, TV and radio cannot.

A minority of communication leaders are successfully driving this shift to a more consultative role for their profession. Yet they struggle to incorporate this change into considerations around budget, skills and objectives. Few have the time or the connections to access examples of private sector best practice.

Our research suggests a strong correlation between successful citizen engagement and successfully maintaining or restoring public trust. This is unlikely to be accidental.

"The responsibility of explaining policies to citizens is at the heart of what we do. But you know, we've taken it a little bit further and we're saying more and more that… it isn't only about projecting government's policy work into the public domain. It's also about listening and trying to interact with citizens to understand how they can improve the policy making process itself." – Communication Leader, Africa

"It's a matter of staging oneself and engaging in dialogue and exchange with the public. So communication is at the core of the legitimacy and credibility of the democratic political system." – Communication Leader, Western Europe

What can be done?

There is no single way to engage with the public. What is clear from the research however, is that governments need to move towards a more participatory model of communication. Some respondents have experimented with deliberative inquiry techniques which set out to explore promising avenues for action, rather than aiming to solve a problem or resolve an issue. Others have used more formal programmes such as participatory budgeting where ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. Such models seek to help individuals feel connected to each other and to their communities, and can instil a sense of ownership, trust and connectivity.

To achieve the shift from communication to conversation, governments need to accept that communication is no longer a linear process. Two-way communication is a process of negotiation: both the sender and receiver listen to each other, gather information and must be willing to make changes to work together in agreement.

"We have really got to revisit the word 'communication'. Some some reason, in our society it has come to mean transmitting information and that is actually a model of communication that was developed in the era of propaganda in the 1920s… this is a very outdated and very narrow one-way concept. Most people and academics ague today that communication is reaction, it's a transaction. It has to have speakers and listeners." – Communication Leader, South East Asia

Our research indicates that governments routinely tell their citizens what they are doing and how, but less often why. Yet explaining why a course of action occurs can help minimise resistance from citizens: they still may dislike a policy or course of action (such as austerity) but may assent to it if they understand why it is necessary. Our research with government communication practitioners suggests that those governments which routinely include the what, the how and the why in their messaging are more successful at engaging with their citizens than those that don't.

Successful inclusion of the 'why' depends on proper dialogue with citizens. It is through conversation that governments are able to gauge the most salient issues and frame their 'why' in terms that will most resonate with the public. This will engage citizens and demonstrate that public needs sit at the heart of government decisions and actions.

Tools and approaches that can help

We help governments and public sector bodies listen to, understand and formulate responses to public beliefs, concerns and needs through a range of services including:

  • Behavioural research, frameworks and tools
  • Small- and large-scale citizen engagement exercises such as participatory budgeting
  • Deliberative public engagement in public policy
  • Digital engagement