Syndicate content

On Learning Governance Communication Capacity

Tom Jacobson's picture

Like Sina, I too was recently in Cape Town as part of a team of trainers delivering a course titled 'People, Politics and Change: Communication Approaches for Governance Reform'. The participants were 29 senior government officials from 10 different African countries. The thoughts Sina expressed in his post reflect well the rich learning experience for all involved. What strikes me in hindsight is how this learning, and the country participants’ enthusiasm for it, verified the complex skill set required of communication in support of governance reform efforts. Here is what I mean.

As a student of development theory I am forever struck at how glibly an earlier generation of development thinkers promulgated a kind of social engineering formula in the name of development. Underlying this social engineering formula was a kind of market fundamentalism that justified economists in their technocratic manner, and has not entirely been abandoned yet. But sociologists, political scientists, and communication researchers also relied too heavily on this social engineering formula: First one does this, then one does that, after which thus and such will produce the goal endpoint. In the famous formula of political scientist Daniel Lerner, who wrote The Passing of Traditional Society, urbanization would lead to literacy which would lead to the development of a capable work force and citizens engaging in media consumption who would then become active participants in democratic politics, all of which is required if capital investment is to lead to economic growth.

Lerner’s book was widely read and his model was treated as the key statement on communication’s role in democratic development of capitalistic societies. Perhaps its most famous oversight was a blindness to the importance of traditional culture. But what it also overlooked was the fact that governance involves a complex set of skills that must be learned across interlocking sectors within rapidly changing societies. And these skills must be learned not only by development bureaucrats and economists, but also by civil society, media institutions, public opinion companies, intellectuals, and citizens. For one example, as was discussed in Cape Town, citizenship requires citizenship skills. This means that citizens must know that they have rights, must know when actual conditions allow them to exercise these rights, must know how to debate issues with those who have differing views, and must understand that political solutions usually require compromise. Even when not entirely satisfactory from a personal point of view these compromises nevertheless can often produce the best outcome for all concerned.

Urbanization and literacy do not automatically teach such citizenship skills. Nor do investments in private media automatically enrich a free press, nor does the constitutional establishment of democratic institutions automatically lead to civil servants who know how to assess public opinion and communicate ministry and agency intentions publicly. This all must be learned, often through iterative learning processes requiring stamina and generosity, as well as hope. These are some of the communication skills governance reform requires, in addition to negotiation, stakeholder analysis, media relations, and needs assessment.

Development theory from a generation ago was built on a positive vision for democratic self-governance that in many ways is still widely shared. That it was naïve of political economy and ignored the central importance of culture, we now know. But what still must be more widely appreciated is the fact that governance includes a complex and non-formulaic set of capacities, including communication capacities, that must be learned institutionally and will not result from “inputs” of capital or legal niceties alone. While the delivery team hopefully helped in sharing some best practices, I think in fact that the Cape Town participants understand perfectly well the importance of communication and the human investments required to acquire communication capacity. To this extent, I hope that beyond best practices CommGAP learning programs can help reassure groups like this. Reassure them that at least some people, including some development specialists who are well-placed in a reigning metropole, agree with them. For my part, I will feed what they know and have taught and reassured me about, back into theory.

Photo Credit: Antonio Lambino

Add new comment