Communication and governance are as ancient as human civilisation across a number of African countries – the concepts date back to the era of chieftaincies and the kingdom rule, which seemingly, dominated how communities were governed. In using formal and informal methods of communication, communities were directed by the rule of law known to the respective kingdom, as such, intentional communication played a crucial role in building those communities. This research study was premised on understanding the extent in which strategic communication management support governance initiatives and sustainability programmes. A participatory communication perspective was used to obtain inclusive citizenry engagement, as a working concept in the current study. In achieving this resolve, the study deliberated on the identification of legitimate citizenry needs, interests and expectations, measured among others, to obtain inclusivity in participatory endeavours.
The North-West Province, with its four districts and the rural background, among others, was used as the study’s orientation. An interdisciplinary approach was embraced with three literature chapters conducted, which guided the synthesis of a meta-theoretical framework. To advance the meta-theoretical framework, a qualitative research approach was adopted with an exploratory design. Data collection was done through semi-structured interviews with the Provincial Government officials and focus group interviews with ordinary citizens across four districts of the Province. The analysis of data was done with the aid of a computer software, NVivo 11 plus and the manual approach, as complementary methods considered essential for the study.
The current research study recorded that in government communication, the practice and application of strategic communication efforts and programmes have the potential to yield positive and continuous benefits for citizens as the governed and for the Provincial Government as the governor. Through strategic communication, two-way communicative relationship between the citizens and the government is the manifestation of a dialogic communication approach. The empirical data indicated that striving for inclusive citizenry engagement at the North-West Province largely depend on how strategic communication is enabled to promote sustainability reporting, openness and transparency of programme planning and implementation. As a consequence, the study also noted that operational communication was more preferred rather than purposeful, deliberate and intentional communication with ordinary citizens. Moreover, operational communication often failed to mitigate citizenry aspirations and to offer inclusive participatory engagement opportunities for maximum impact.
The study also found that inclusive citizenry engagement is not a single process or set of activities. It is an ongoing process or conversation that builds trust and mutually beneficial relationships as anchored by strategic communication strategies established with a particular purpose. In this context, strategic communication programmes should be leveraged by the aspirations of ordinary citizens via the horizontal bottom-up to ensure that the vertical top-down approach is adequately influenced and reflect the views of the majority. On the other hand, the Provincial Government officials should be thoroughly acquainted with the purpose of strategic and communicative action; and educate community authorities as well, if possible, through training. The most effective vehicles to reach/train them are workshops, seminars and distance learning, if technology permits. This should be reinforced by printed materials on an accessible level and in the local language to benefit citizens as well, and to create an inclusive, participative and involved society in all governmental programmes.
Furthermore, consultation processes were also viewed as fragmented opportunities solely established to benefit the carrier(s) of the message instead of achieving the purpose of communication and adequately engaging the receiver. At the heart of all endeavours, a unidirectional or one-way imbalanced communication relationship between the Provincial Government and citizens was often perpetuated by inadequate communication training and the inability to learn, by some incompetent representatives. In order to be effective, therefore, strategic communication should be both a centre-of-government concern – part of the policy-making and strategic process at the highest levels – and a whole-of-government unifier, a common feature of all activities at all levels of the Provincial Government. Finally, persuasive influence is integral to strategic communication and is thus critical to the relationship between the governor and the governed. As the study’s contribution, a Strategic Communication Framework for Inclusive Citizenry Engagement was developed together with a set of effective strategic communication guidelines to assist government practitioners in the execution of their duties. The Strategic Communication Framework provides functions and capabilities aligned to the empirical data where citizenry needs, interests and expectations are at the centre of organised inclusive engagement opportunities. Fundamentally, the current study also provided core competencies to enable public representatives as community communicators to be more professional and competent when engaging citizens.
It is recommended, among others, that a revolutionary approach to strategic communication be embarked upon in the North-West Province, and especially in the African context, to achieve better outcomes. In this regard, truly conceived, good governance does not mean serving the interests of the government of the day, but those of ordinary citizens. Open debate at all levels will promote participation and facilitate monitoring and the evaluation of progress, especially during the implementation of the people-oriented programmes through collaborations. Citizens, as an integral societal component, must have a clear understanding of the work expected from them; and receive ongoing feedback regarding how they are performing relative to those expectations. This will assist communication practitioners and senior officials to identify collaborative opportunities, and to address performance that meets expectations, but also to distribute recognition accordingly.
To a greater extent, citizen’s collaboration in policy and service delivery design will also enhance the processes of government and improve the outcomes sought. Collaboration ‘with’ citizens is to be enabled and encouraged. Given the supposed intimate relationship between the Provincial Government and its citizens and the message, strategic communication design must take place in support of clearly identified and articulated citizenry needs, interests and expectations to deliver maximum social value in which inclusivity for all is envisioned. Only then will the Provincial Government be able to communicate strategically with highly engaged, empowered, informed and impactful ordinary citizens.