Subsidy Removal: How Government Communications Should be – By Fassy Yusuf, Ph.D
THE brouhaha that has been greeting the recent ‘removal’ of subsidy on premium motor spirit (PMS) or petrol by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) is to be expected. But the negative and positive noisy and overexcited reactions were avoidable. Why? For a fundamental issue such as subsidy removal that has a multiplier, profound and monumental effect on the totality of the economy, existence of the citizenry and the general well-being of the people, the adopted tactic (mind you, no strategy) of communicating the removal showed that there was a disconnect between the government and the governed. Simply put, good idea, bad communication.
If there was going to be a major policy reversal or far-reaching adjustments in the management of the economy, how should this be communicated to the governed or better still, what should the government have done to win or secure the endorsement of the people? There is no denying the fact that since the country started exporting crude oil, profligacy was entrenched into the management system of the country and the agrarian and other aspects of the economy became comatose until recently.
Countrymen would recall that Shell-BP discovered crude oil in commercial quantities in 1956 at Oloibiri, in the present Bayelsa State and thus we joined the league of oil producers in 1958. Beginning from mid-sixties, oil started dominating our lives in this country to the extent that it is still the live wire of our economy. Presently, we can say ‘No Oil, No Nigeria’. Successive administrations in the country did not attach much attention to the diversification of the economy and we were all living as if there was no tomorrow. Then came PMB.
Nigeria’s rascality and recklessness with oil money and management led one of our leaders to pronounce abashedly or without any modicum of reflection that ‘the problem with us was that we have got so much oil wealth without knowing what to do with it’ forgetting that crude oil is a volatile and exhaustible commodity, and subject to the vagaries of international politics, dynamics of global power play and the pendulum of world economy. At least, if we never appreciated these issues, the current coronavirus pandemic has shown us that global economy can be disrupted and the demand for crude oil could plummet and that oil glut has enormous risk for producing nations. The global imbalance between demand and supply in the Crude oil market reached its peak mid this year and dealt a devastating blow to our economy and other economies in the world. Oil-producing nations were offering oil for free as demand and consumption was not there. Meanwhile, storage facilities were needed!
For our nation, we had for over forty years bandied the imperativeness of economic diversification and the need for frugality and strategic direction in the management of our resources. Regrettably, it had always been motion without movement as most of our leaders were bereft of ideas and task completion mechanism. They took delight in fooling the people with highfalutin and empty programmes that had little or no bearing for the wellbeing of the populace.
Albeit, his critics have dubbed him ‘Baba Go-Slow’, PMB and his administration appear to be prepared to change the current tide of economic stagnation and stagflation by rejigging and diversifying the economy and blocking leakages that have held us down. The major ones are the removal of PMS subsidy/full deregulation of the Oil sector, hitherto the haven of corruption; review of electricity tariff; aggressive promotion of agriculture, revitalisation of the transport sector especially railway and air services, and the gas pipeline project. All these are meant to give the nation a new lease of life. As once stated by a United States of America’s statesman, Bill Clinton, ‘the problem with democracy is that things are slow in happening, and the good thing is that without democracy, sustainable development cannot be guaranteed.’ However, for government to earn the empathy, understanding and buy-in of the populace, it must take strategic communication to a level that is fundamentally acceptable.
For example, how many of us know or appreciate that the trillions of naira that are being used for subsidising fuel consumption is many times more than ‘the annual capital budget appropriation for agriculture, education, heath delivery, trade and investment combined (Eromosele, 2020)?’ If you add this situation to power sector and other leakages, we would need not go far to know why we are underdeveloped. We want cheap fuel, cheap electricity and the rest, yet we are not prepared to make sacrifices for own good and for a better tomorrow. But don’t blame the people, but blame our leaders for unenviable leadership.
Professor Usman Mohammed Muntaqa of Ahmadu Bello University while speaking with Temitope Omolade advanced five reasons why PMB ended fuel subsidies. These were corruption, competition in the oil market, drop in global oil price, oil diversion and smuggling, and volatility of the foreign exchange market. I hasten to add another reason. The need to free the economy from abuse, rejig it and use the money to address critical areas.
However, one is appalled by the way we engage in communications as if the citizens do not really matter and that policies of monumental effect or that could bring shockwave can be forced down their throats without blinking an eyelid! This should not be so.
The best way to start communication or develop communication strategies by any dynamic government should include developing a strategic overview of the proposed or intended policy or programme, micro and macro-environmental scanning, undertaking SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of the programme to be embarked upon by government, understanding the key communication messages, mastery of the target audiences, communication tactics for effective execution of the programme, the aspect of implementation, monitoring, measurement and evaluation of the adopted or approved communication strategy, and constant review mechanism of the effect of the programme.
According to Resultsmap of Canada, ‘the business of government has changed dramatically in recent years. So it’s no surprise that the transformation of government operations, coupled with an unprecedented rise in citizen expectations have created extraordinary demands on government communications.’ Consequently, many dynamic countries are adopting best practices in their government communications to ensure harmony, effective programme delivery and secure mutual understanding and buy-in for their programmes.
Some of the best communication practices that are flourishing include: One Government, One Voice (streamlining communications to establish a strong identity and message since the communication marketplace is now crowded and noisy); the desirability of Audience-Centric Communications (allowing for citizens to have a user-driven experience of accessing information); Agile or Creative communication Teams (a network of teams with a high degree of empowerment, strong communication, and rapid information flow) in response to the extraordinary changes in the media landscape; Digital and Open by Default using the core principle of designing communication tactics and approaches around the web as the core channel, rather than as an afterthought; and Focusing on Dialogue and Engagement which has been lacking in government as what we see quite often is ‘tell and then sell tactic’ or ‘fire brigade approach’.
Others include Communication driven by Storylines (content strategy) through identifying priority themes and narratives that are brought to life through a concerted exercise of storytelling with a judicious focus on sense-making; Delivery methodologies that would ensure effective execution of priorities, otherwise known as ‘Deliverology’ which aims at embedding an agile performance management system in government information management; and Results-Based Communication management which is the underpinning of modern government operations as management by metrics has become the undisputed gold standard of operational delivery.
Our government must not continue to fall into the trap of creating content or communicating for itself. The public is the audience. We must appreciate the glasshouse effect. Nigeria needs ‘a strong, trusted, persuasive and appealing communication strategy’ for every activity of government, the removal of subsidy on premium motor spirit, inclusive. Effective public engagement is paramount to the success of any programme. The citizens should not be taken for granted no matter how good the intention of government is.
Culled from THURSDAY X-RAY Fassy Yusuf, Ph.D. Dr. Yusuf can be reached his via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Mobile: 0809 615 8530 (SMS only)