The video clip of President Uhuru Kenyatta talking on phone with Eliud Kipchoge on the eve of the historic marathon in Vienna, Austria, is one of the most innovative communication strategies by a public office.
People eavesdropped. It would not have been as engaging if it was told by a statement read on radio or TV or even communicated via a tweet.
Tradition, the uniqueness of government business and bureaucracy are key elements that shape communication practices in the public sector.
Ordinarily, the communication function in government is designed to only inform citizens using one-way channels, the the government administration gives orders or disseminates some propaganda to citizens through radio, TV and newspaper announcements. The subjects are expected to comply.
This was fairly effective in the era of single party and prior to the liberation of the airwaves. The Voice of Kenya, which later became the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), was then the only electronic news media. Since it owned both the message and the messenger, the government was not motivated to be innovative in disseminating information.
Then came the digital migration in 2015 and the number of radio and TV stations increased significantly. Soon there were more than 180 FM stations and 70 TV stations and a myriad of online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. There were hardly any new newspapers coming to the market but the existing brands have had to be innovative in both content and presentation so as to stem competition.
The audience also became fragmented. This meant that the government was no longer sure if it had the eyes and ears of the citizens.
There is now a more democratic space, evidenced by an engaging, if not restless, social media world. A two-way approach on public communication is, therefore, inevitable. In addition, the communication platforms are now more accessible and affordable. This provides an opportunity for government officials to interact with citizens.
Although there is tremendous effort to provide online government services through the e-citizen portal, access to information and engaging with government officials is still poor.
The websites of government ministries, county governments and parastatals are rarely updated. And even where information is available it is often “billboard information”— tender notices, reports and publications. Researchers and journalists looking for credible information need not get frustrated because there is so much the government can document online.
To take full advantage of the digital technology, the government will only demonstrate that it has taken full advantage of the digital technology when it converses with citizens using interactive platforms such as live chats, surveys, feedback forms, emails and even web-based bulk SMS.
The level of interactivity by each government institution can be monitored and evaluated using usability and responsiveness tests.
For example, how long will it take government officials to respond to an email request sent to the email address they provide on the “Contact Us” menu on their website? Do the telephone numbers provide actually work?
Whereas technology has made it easy to post content on websites, the development of government websites is hampered by lack of a clear policy, especially on who is responsible for updates and maintenance.
Some communication officials view it as a task for IT people. But this is no longer a technical function because it does not require knowledge on computer coding. Modern applications have made it easy to update websites and therefore the technical staff should only ensure availability and security. The PR and communication officials must post regular updates by themselves.
On a positive note, most public organisations provide snippets of information on Twitter and Facebook. There is a need to encourage more use of digital communication in government.
One way of doing this is to have a yearly award scheme on digital government. The Ministry of ICT could partner with other stakeholders in the private sector and come up with ways encouraging competition and innovation in the provision of government information.
Andrew Limo,advocate of computer mediated communication.