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Muddled messages

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Muddled messages

2nd September 2011

By: Terence Creamer
Creamer Media Editor

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It goes without saying that it is not easy to get everyone in an organisation to sing from the same hymn sheet. Regardless of the issue, opinions will differ. In fact, misalignments, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are arguably only natural.

It is up to the leadership of the organisation to find ways (formal and informal) to ensure that the communication within an organisation is as clear and unequivocal as it can be, so that there is little room for muddle when that message is eventually presented for public consumption.

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As with all things human, this takes a great deal of diligence, which cannot always be sustained. However, one would safely expect that such diligence is particular important when it comes to Cabinet Ministers and government communicators more generally. Good communications is their stock in trade and moving off-message is surely not only counterproductive, but career limiting.

Worryingly, though, there seems to be a growing trend among incumbent Cabinet Ministers and government officials to deviate from internally agreed messages.

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Three recent examples in relation to three important matters illustrate the point.

The first deviation related to a proposal for an Infrastructure Commission to be headed by President Jacob Zuma, which was arguably the main outcome of the midyear Cabinet lekgotla. It was presented initially by Minister in the Presidency Responsible for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Collins Chabane as a highly strategic intervention aimed at ensuring not only the proper selection of megaprojects, but that those projects being implemented were implemented effectively and in a way that ensured maximum socioeconomic value was extracted. But speaking at an infrastructure development cluster briefing, Energy Minister Dipuo Peters pursued an elaborate explanation about how the commission would target micro municipal projects to bolster service delivery.

Then, there was the debacle around the splitting of Transnet’s rail unit into separate infrastructure and operational entities and housing the infrastructure assets in a new Rail Infrastructure Utility. The issue, raised in Parliament by a senior Department of Transport official, caused much confusion as it was a reversal of an earlier decision, made in 2005, to allow an integrated Transnet to pursue a multibillion-rand investment programme. It turned out that vertical separation was in fact not on the cards and the departments of Transport and Public Enterprises promised to improve bilateral communication to avoid future misunderstandings.

The latest example relates to the current disagreement in Cabinet over the future of South Africa’s labour laws and the proposed youth wage subsidy. In this instance, there is undoubtedly an element of kite flying and it is not, as is the case in the other two instances, merely another example of poor policy interpretation.

Nevertheless, it creates confusion and demonstrates, yet again, that President Zuma is not playing the role expected of him in diligently overseeing the core messages of government.

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