The Straits Times says

Crucial to develop informed citizenry

Social media, dialects and television show characters are contributing to the explanation of government policies in livelier ways than before. This change embodies the truism that communication, like official policy, needs to reflect the diversity of a population marked by different and sometimes competing needs. Long gone are the days when a single provision could hope to benefit the overwhelming majority of the people. Public housing, for example, which is subject to a web of policies, has to contend with varying needs and wants generated by a segmented society.

The Government's communication efforts need to stay abreast of these social developments. Fundamentally, the challenge is to respect people's sense of reality while offering them a factual scaffolding to build their varied perceptions of changes around them. In concrete terms, official communication must recognise and engage the stratified interests of the young, middle-aged, and old; the English-proficient and dialect-conversant; the cosmopolitans and heartlanders. Precisely because change is often centrifugal, communication must also help people to recognise the larger whole - to give a unifying sense of how the futures of citizens are ultimately bound together.

Another challenge that public agencies face is to show how policies must necessarily benefit most in a targeted group most of the time, and cannot cater to every atypical situation as this would overburden taxpayers. New communication strategies, therefore, are more likely to bear fruit when the means adopted by broad policies are explained alongside the desired ends and underlying principles - for example, the need to be socially equitable and culturally acceptable, while being fiscally sound.

It would be also useful to go beyond explaining a major set of decisions, by flagging upcoming issues and communicating the backdrop to citizens before the policies are settled. This way, they would be made aware of emerging problems and have an opportunity to raise questions. The discussion might open up other facets of issues and spur ideas on ways to address them. Thus informed, citizens would be in a better position to appreciate the rationale of final decisions when these are announced later. The more profound the impact of a policy, the greater the need to engage the public at key stages of policymaking. This could indeed facilitate the communication of regulations and programmes drawn up - for example, by offering handy answers to questions on the minds of different groups of people.

Instead of, say, merely announcing certain social ills and steps taken to check these, communication ought to help citizens understand choices, outcomes and trade-offs. All stakeholders might then feel like co-owners of policies shaped.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2016, with the headline 'Crucial to develop informed citizenry'. Print Edition | Subscribe