Creating a Democracy for Everyone: Strategies for Increasing Listening and Engagement by Government

This study appears courtesy of Dr. Jim Macnamara, FAMEC, FAMI, CPM, FPRIA, Professor of Public Communication, at the University of Technology Sydney. The full study can be found here.

Governments and political parties spend hundreds of millions of dollars, euro, pounds, and other equivalent currency on public communication. Apart from the vast amounts spent on election campaigns, particularly in the USA, governments have ongoing programs of public communication. For example, the UK national government spends around £300 million a year on communication to inform and engage citizens. Even state governments spend $100 million a year or more on activities such as advertising and PR. The European Commission has conducted single issue communication campaigns across its 28 member states costing upwards of €30 million

Despite major investments in public communication, there are signs that democracy is breaking down or broken in a number of Western democratic countries. This is evidenced in:

  • Low levels of trust in government, politicians, and political processes as well as in other institutions central to democratic and civil society;
  • Disengagement from traditional political participation. For example, while a few political parties have gained support recently (e.g., the Scottish National Party), membership of the three major political parties in the UK (Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat) totaled just 1.6% of eligible voters in 2016;
  • Declining voter turnouts in elections other than some recent ‘protest votes’;
  • Increasing radicalisation and extremism ranging from the rise of Far right political parties in a number of countries to youth becoming ‘foreign fighters’ with violent extremist organizations.

Research shows that the cause of this dissatisfaction with democracy can be attributed to organizations’ focus on message dissemination (i.e. speaking) and organizational listening that is solely instrumental.

“Creating a ‘Democracy for Everyone” commends the UK Prime Minister’s commitment to “a country that works for everyone.” However, the study notes that the Prime Minister’s goals “will not be achievable without a sustained commitment to listening to stakeholders and citizens.”

Based on two and a half years of in-depth research in Australia, the UK, and the USA as well as a number of interviews and consultations in Europe, this report identifies strategies designed to create more equitable, sustainable governments—democracies that work for everyone.

Findings:

Digital media including Web sites and social media afford opportunities for low-cost engagement with many stakeholders and citizens and are still under-utilized. However, it needs to be recognized that digital communication and service delivery are not used by some sectors of society (e.g., many older people and many in low socioeconomic circumstances). Therefore, governments need a mix of digital and ‘analogue’ methods of communication and engagement, as well as face-to-face interaction (e.g., direct community engagement, partnerships, etc.).

Politicians listen, but they mostly listen to and are influenced by:

  • Traditional media – often spending much of their time garnering publicity and monitoring media such as newspapers, TV, and radio in the belief that these channels both influence and reflect the views of stakeholders and citizens. With ‘audience fragmentation’13 and a major decline in trust in traditional media, this belief is misplaced. Large sections of society now derive their news and information via social media and do not read newspapers or watch TV for news or current affairs. Also, many media organizations reflect partisan views;
  • Political parties – most major political parties have flagging membership and no longer represent or speak for the majority or even a significant minority of the sectors of society that they purport to serve. As noted previously, despite membership increases in some minority parties, membership of the three major political parties in the
    UK (Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats) amounts to just 1.6% of eligible voters in the UK.
  • In summary, the major sources of information and feedback that politicians rely on are declining institutions that do not represent the voice of stakeholders and citizens.

Methodology:

The findings and recommendations in this report are based on in-depth qualitative research undertaken in four countries between 2014 and 2016 in two stages:

1) Case study analysis of the public communication and stakeholder engagement of 36 organizations in Australia, the UK, and the USA in 2014–2015

2) Participatory action research in which the lead researcher worked intensively with staff in two major UK government organizations and in close consultation with staff in 10 other UK government departments and agencies over a six-month period to evaluate government communication and engagement with citizens and to develop, trial, and test strategies for improving communication and engagement. This report focuses particularly on the second stage.

For the full study, visit here.

Posted in [Research Library], Global PR, Public Affairs.

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