Only connect: Why Arab governments must learn to communicate
Citizens have a right to know. Period. One of the most important pillars of a functioning society is an abundance of open channels of communication between governments and people.
Government should always provide reliable, timely, topical information about its activities, particularly policy-building, related amendments and any relevant feedback once policies are implemented. This is crucial in Arab countries undergoing transition or settling into new socio-political dynamics.
The so-called Arab Spring and its aftermath should have alerted governments to the dangers of making key public policy decisions at the behest of out-of-touch elites in stratified societies.
Adding insult to injury, a largely shut-out or repressed public are expected to bear the costs of these policies as subsidies vanish while taxes rise and currency devaluations lead to high inflation.
Several Arab world economies have embarked on policies to “rationalize” budgets and reshape public policy over the next decade, or even less.
Unfortunately, there is a risk that much-needed economic transformation will run aground as people are not consulted, tempers flare and citizens take to the streets in opposition to austerity and reform.
The Arab world needs to change, but to do so, leaders and governments must make a compelling case for people to understand, anticipate and eventually accept higher prices, reduced subsidies, new taxes and a reduced public sector. It is also important not to confuse communication with public relations and simple persuasion.
This may have worked before, but at a time when no Arab government can avoid belt-tightening, austerity and tax rises, the usual politics will no longer work.
Policy-makers must find better ways to interface with the public in order to generate wider support for the inevitable raft of legislation and reforms that have short-term drawbacks but long-term benefits.
This is where an effective strategic communications culture, with greater inclusivity and transparency, is likely to prevent public furor at surging prices, reduced benefits, lower wages, hiring freezes and persistently high unemployment.
The Arab world needs to change, but to do so, leaders and governments must make a compelling case for people to understand, anticipate and eventually accept higher prices, reduced subsidies, new taxes and a reduced public sector.
Note also that communicating with the public should not be left until after policies have been implemented and citizens are pouring on to the streets, or threatening to. Rather, communications should begin from the start and as an integral part of any public policy or reforms well before they are implemented.
Most would scoff at the suggestion that the public would accept deep structural reforms. Surely no government in its right mind could hope to succeed if it spoke of slashing the public sector workforce, increasing taxes and slashing subsidies that help millions? But it is still vital that the public is made aware of what is on the horizon and why such policies are necessary.
Nor is it enough for a government simply to inform citizens of its activities and their likely effects.
Effective communications are a two-way street. There should be a feedback system built into every disclosure and mechanism used to interface with the public before a policy is even implemented.
If austerity and reforms are in pursuit of the greater and common good, should not citizens also be part of the policy planning, consensus building and implementation process?
Inviting people’s input through various platforms and channels, or inviting the participation of representative bodies at key points in the decision-making process, can earn a government crucial support for reform.
This is even more likely if public input is worked into the reforms themselves; this would reflect sensitivity to the plight of the most vulnerable, who are also the most likely to resort to protest and civil disobedience.
Fear of public reaction has been the chief reason for stalled reform in the Arab world and the many public policy failures we see today. Many Arab governments have been trying to maintain the status quo out of fear of how the public will respond to change. Well, that status quo is no longer sustainable.
Increasingly, the credibility of Arab governments and the public’s acceptance of their policies depends on the level to which officials are open to communication.
When the public is made part of the policy process, it is easier for governments to gain support and valuable input for reform, making its implementation seamless.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell