Channel NewsAsia

New approach needed to enhance engagement between govt and citizens

Communications experts say there needs to be a new information infrastructure to enhance engagement between the government and citizens.

SINGAPORE: To enhance engagement between the government and citizens, there needs to be a new information infrastructure, say communications experts.

This is especially so for complex policies which need to be explained to a wide audience.

Gone are the days when public service announcements and information leaflets delivered by mail are enough.

These days, there are Facebook posts with snazzy graphics and even YouTube videos.

But still, it's a challenge communicating complex government policies.

A recent survey by government feedback arm REACH showed that while there is awareness of the CPF scheme in general, most are unsure about details - such as the Minimum Sum or CPF Life.

Of late, there's also been some confusion over newer schemes like the Pioneer Generation Package and MediShield Life.

One expert Channel NewsAsia spoke with say the key is in engaging the ground early even before a policy is in place and having sustained engagement before issues get overblown.

Allison Lim, Managing Director of Public Affairs & Government Communications Practice at Burson-Marsteller, said: "If you have a dynamic feedback mechanism, then you will know what your audience wants to know and that is part and parcel as well so it's over-communicating but then also listening to the audience. You find out what they want to know then you can continuously tweak your messages so that you give them the information they need."

She added that communications tend to work best with minimal control - even in a messy, noisy environment.

That is because good messages will rise above everything else.

And nothing beats face-to-face communications.

One expert says some within the community just do not interact with text.

Professor Mohan J Dutta, Head of Department of Communications & New Media at National University of Singapore, said: "One of the things that we see at least in our field of work is that there are many sub-cultures who do not interact with the text. So you might for instance, take that information in English and translate it into Mandarin and Malay, but that is not cultural adaptation. It is cultural tweaking in that sense, but it does not take into account the communicative context, the ways in which people live their lives so sometimes, I think we have this elite bias about how we think about communication."

Experts say credible third parties or peer leaders should be brought in to spread the message.

In the case of MediShield Life, it could be getting general practitioners and social workers to help spread the word.

Member of Parliament for Tampines GRC Baey Yam Keng said civil servants, too, need to be more active on the ground.

Mr Baey said: "(It is) more of going into the ground to explain policies repeatedly. That means greater intensity, greater frequency but also in a language that people can understand. Now I see they do work with grassroots leaders but honestly, grassroots leaders may not be the best people because sometimes they also have difficulty understanding the policy so they may be perpetuating the wrong information."

He added: "I think it's up to the officials, the civil servants who know the policies at their fingertips, who will be able to find a way to present it so that the man in the street can understand clearly. And it's something you can do better through practice and that is the only way. I think government servants need to be on the ground more, walk around, talk to people and engage and understand what is the difficulty that grassroots leaders have, the difficulty that we face when trying to explain difficult policies or complicated policies."

Communication also becomes tougher as the population gets more diverse. There'll be differing viewpoints to contend with and sometimes groups challenging government policies - making the ability to get buy-in more of a challenge.

And this, experts say, is where trust comes in, combined with the intrinsic ability to convince and assure.

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