If we understand the basic premise that communication is one of the main components of a successful governing structure, we need to understand how it could be best done. Trust building between government and the people through sharing of information in a horizontal system of communication is what we call a democratic public information system. The goal of this system ought to be empowerment of people through giving them correct information about everyday life. Every government has the issue of public trust. Many of these decide to win public trust through persuasion. Persuasion simply means giving people information about any action in a manner that only the positive and helpful aspects are shared and those with a potential to harm short term credibility are avoided. This is done in the name of public good, the idea behind which is the elitist concept of a common man not knowing their best interest. The common people should be guarded against their own ignorance by giving them information that they could digest.
This is the wrong concept of human nature and even a worse idea of supporting a democracy through public information. The founders of the idea of persuasion, Wilbur Schramm being the most well known exponent, disowned the practice of persuasion in favor of information. The thought behind the shift from persuasion to information was the simple awareness that although partial information could help in molding public opinion quicker than any other method, it has a long term deficit. People are going to know the whole truth in time. And when this happens they are going to lose all trust in government. To avoid this trust deficit, it is important to inform people about the whole truth and trust them with the handling of it. This also underlines a more humane idea of human nature than the guided practice of partial spoon feeding, which is based upon mistrust in the genius of the people.
Now the question that confronts us with the idea of the "whole truth" is a difficult one to handle. Believing in this narrative is far innocent than actually practicing it in a world of information explosion and a political system marred by intrigue and the breakneck completion to discredit the incumbent government, no matter wherever in the world it functions. An opposition will always take advantage of the whole truth and the weaknesses it exposes of the incumbent government to claim the moral high ground for the very purpose of securing election victories. But since every high hill has a road to climb the top, public information systems have strategies to avoid damaging the incumbent government while maintaining to be truthful and empowering.
There are three main areas of communication for governance support. These are internal communication structure, public information through different forums and media, and public participation through a feedback mechanism that reaches the internal communication structure. An Intranet is an internal communication network where all the responsible government functionaries are connected to each other. Roles and Responsibilities of different government departments are shared on the platform and regular updates about specific actions is given on this web platform. The benefit of this is that it is a self monitoring and evaluation system where each and every person and action remains transparent. It is a good measure to put a deadline pressure on the responsible functionaries for specific actions and projects. It is also a venue for healthy competition at internal level where different departments and the personnel could weigh their performance against their colleagues in different areas, both functionally and in terms of localities.
The Intranet will also function as a feedback desk for each and every department. The participatory feedback coming from in terms of public response to public information and participatory feedback could be shared on the Intranet to make the relevant departments aware of the image and level of public acceptance (or otherwise) of different projects. Again it will help in creation of a more transparent governance structure on internal level as well as a participatory one in terms of getting specific feedback to adjust actions and policies in the light of public response. And in case public response seems to be ill-informed or less informed, the public information mechanism could be used to adjust to the lack of knowledge or any misinformation. This will create a bond between the people and the government that will bridge the communication and information gap to lessen the trust deficit.
The second most important component in a public information system is informing the public in a manner that it could help them in informed decision making. Our present government information system is more of a publicity mechanism. It is, in fact, not even that. It is an advertisement doling system which tries to appease the media instead of informing the public. Advertising is part of a larger whole, and could only be helpful when people have direct access to information through the government. What do we advertise? The government advertises its achievements through advertisements. Who are the target recipients of the advertising campaigns? The people! But the advertisements never inform people. These only give the government functionaries a sense of achievement, and the media and advertisement industry easy and free money. It is like making weapons. Weapons are made to ensure peace. But peace is never ensured. It is endangered by weapons and the ultimate beneficiaries are war mongers. The same is true for government advertisements for public welfare. These always fail to do what they are meant to do. They never bridge the governance gap, never lessen the trust deficit. Like weapons in a war industry government advertisements add to public mistrust. It feeds the rumormongers!
There is need to develop a structure that could get people direct access to information. Instead of putting enormous amounts into the media and advertising industry, there is need to mobilize and utilize the government's own information, communication, and public relations structures. The government has all the needed structures in hand. Every government department has a public relations office or officials, there is a full fledged ministry of information. The KP government's Directorate of information and Public Relations is a well-equipped structure with a good number of staff in Peshawar and offices in every district. The government also has links to youth through universities and school systems. It is very important that the government should utilize its own structure well and then allow public institutions and youth and other social forums to contribute to the development of a sustainable information system. This is the only way to support democracy through information. Talking to the mirror to one's own image is wrong. It is rather sick. Government, of all social entities, should avoid it. Installing a good public information system is not a favor. It is a responsibility.
The writer is a professor of journalism at Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Peshawar. He has a PhD degree in communication studies from University of Leipzig, Germany