Thursday, August 22

Closing the communication gap

  • IF 2016 taught us anything at all, it’s that trust levels of people around the world towards their governments are at an all-time low.

The respective triumphs of Donald Trump, Brexit, and Rodrigo Duterte are no doubt multifactorial. However, these events can be easily traced to a singular cause: the trust deficit between the government and the governed. The electorate has executed its revolt against the establishment and genuine, or otherwise, perceived incompetence.

People don’t trust their leaders anymore. If we told people a year ago that they would ‘wake up’ and deny the elites their grip on the Iron Throne, I’m sure many would have cheered and harboured great hope for the years ahead. A year ago we envisioned people-centric leaders with the willingness and vision to upend the political and economic elites, restoring power to the electorate, and addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time, like: climate change, economic inequality, and racial imparity.

Unfortunately, the demagogues and populists seized centre stage from the cold, dying-hands of the establishment. Funnily enough, populists are elitist in their own right. However, by running their campaigns on the fear and anger of ordinary people in their respective countries, who felt side-lined by the new socioeconomic order, they successfully portrayed themselves as the people’s champions. Some ran with the promise to eradicate crime and enforce security, at all costs. They won, despite the odds. Sadly, most of them turned out to be political turncoats and opportunists.

The government must be better at communicating. People won’t trust their leaders if they don’t know them.

It is with sincerity that I believe governments generally mean well and have the desire to serve their people. But the messages are often lost in translation. Here are some thoughts on how to close the communication gap.

First and foremost, government ministries and agencies must consult all relevant stakeholders before passing new laws and executing policy. The people working in these ministries are often in the company of their peers and consulted by external party experts. This leads to an arm’s length approach to governing and can definitely lead to a mismatch of expectations. When policymakers don’t understand problems or issues from the ground up – from the average Joe’s point of view – their actions to help a particular group or community might actually prove to be detrimental and counterintuitive. For example, increasing the accessibility of housing loans instead of addressing the undersupply of affordable housing. Furthermore, the government should look into getting more private sector involvement in the affordable housing market instead of building the houses themselves.

Government ministries and agencies definitely need to be more open and accessible for ordinary Malaysians and the youth. In order to gain the trust and understanding of average Malaysians, they must relax protocol and be able to translate their work as well as their results into layman’s terms. Many a time, ordinary people have no access to or are ill-informed of the government’s efforts and work. An ill-informed public is a recipe for disaster as the people become easily misled by false news and accusation politics.

One feature of American and European politics that would do well in Malaysia is to have frequent and public town hall sessions with politically-unaffiliated civil servants. These sessions would not be about engaging the electorate but more for the people to raise specific issues to the people in charge. For instance, officials from the Ministry of Health could hold a town hall for people to voice their concerns about the price and availability of healthy food.

Last but not least, government ministries must be staffed with relevant and properly qualified personnel. At present, civil servants are mainly inducted into the service through the Administrative and Diplomatic Officer or Pegawai Tadbir dan Diplomatik (PTD) system. Graduates of the PTD system are randomly assigned roles and positions in various ministries upon successful completion of the programme. Their assignments usually do not factor in their education background and career compatibility. This means most PTD officers are not matched with roles that they are familiar with academically. Whilst this is usually not a big issue, it further complicates the civil service selection system. This system makes it more difficult for technocrats – rather than bureaucrats – to thrive in the civil service. Moving forward, we must revamp our civil service selection to be more meritocratic and directed, to ensure we have the best people in their best roles.

Effective communication is often the key indicator of a good government vis-à-vis a bad one. It doesn’t matter if the government perfectly executes its duties to the people if they are not informed about it.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]