Chapter 3. The role of public communication in supporting the needs assessment process at the subnational level in Jordan

Public communication can play a fundamental role in bridging the divide between governments and citizens. Separate from political discourse, it allows the public to gain access to relevant information and represents an avenue for citizens to engage with their public administration on issues that matter most to them. This function of government can help build trust, raise awareness around key reforms and change behaviours. The OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government recognizes that effective communication can promote greater transparency and participation, making it a key pillar of successful open government reforms (OECD, 2017).

The OECD defines public communication as “any communication activity or initiative led by public institutions for the public good” (OECD, 2020). It can include the provision of information, as well as consultation and dialogue with stakeholders. To reap its full potential, however, governments must transition toward establishing a two-way dialogue with the public (See Figure 3.1).

In this regard, communication can be a key pillar of effective local governance by promoting the participation of stakeholders in the design and delivery of policies and services. Firstly, this function can help mobilize stakeholders to engage in public consultations, local hearings and other forms of citizen participation and provide them with the necessary information to contribute to the decision making process. Secondly, it can help provide an open a space where citizens can share their concerns, feedback and proposals for action. Thirdly, communication can help reach a wider variety of audiences and broaden the scope of actors involved beyond the usual suspects. Lastly, it can help regain citizen trust and showcase the value of participation initiatives through the dissemination of information about the entire policy making process, including its outcomes and results.

Finding opportunities to establish more collaborative relationships with the public at the subnational level is particularly important for Jordan to regain citizens’ trust, in light of the volatile economic and political landscape in the country. As outlined in chapter 1, trust levels are at an all-time low, where only 38% of the Jordanian population trusts public institutions (Arab Barometer, 2019). In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has underlined how low levels of citizen trust, together with growing instances of mis- and dis-information, can pose threats to the effectiveness of response and recovery measures.

The following chapter provides an overview of the potential of communication to promote participation in the needs assessment process in Jordan. The analysis outlines the key issues facing the new architecture of decentralization to share information across and beyond levels of government and outlines potential avenues to establish a two-way relationship with the public.

Although information is a necessary precondition for openness, raising awareness around the decentralization process is only the first step. Indeed, to promote meaningful communication, subnational authorities must transition toward the establishment of a two-way dialogue with citizens with a focus on promoting participation in the design of local development plans and budgets. This is of particular relevance as the primary goal of decentralization is to grant subnational governments with the necessary authority to formulate policies and identify service needs autonomously, promote local participation, and increase government performance as per Jordan’s 2025 vision (OECD, 2017b).

During OECD interviews, however, subnational authorities attributed the lack of communication capacities, tools and mechanisms, together with low levels of public awareness, as some of the main reasons for the stagnant levels of participation in the process to collect local needs. The following section will therefore explore a series of avenues that subnational governments could consider to communicate more effectively around the decentralization reform, its process and results.

Ensuring the effective implementation of ambitious reforms – such as that of decentralization – requires both a strategic and proactive communication approach to raise awareness, facilitate engagement, and generate buy-in among citizens.

In this regard, public communication strategies can help set an overarching approach and establish the direction of initiatives together with short, medium and long-term goals. A growing number of OECD countries are adopting communication strategies at the local level, which answer the “who”, “what” and “why” of public communication efforts.

Such strategies should be coupled with communication plans, to operationalize the vision set with details about the “when” and “how” of communication. Plans are also meant to flesh out the general objectives of the entities’ communication approach, together with concrete actions, dates and the individuals responsible for its deployment. A growing number of local administrations are adopting communication plans to enable a more strategic approach to engaging with citizens (See Box 3.1 on some examples of communication strategies and plans).

In Jordan, local authorities interact regularly with citizens as part of the process to collect needs, but analysis suggests that public communication activities are done on an ad hoc and informal basis. While 69% of the respondents to the OECD survey noted that their office has a communication plan, interviews revealed that these are often not formalized or widely distributed. Developing a written planning document by each sub-national authority could support the setting of a structured communication approach and establish the direction of initiatives, together with short, medium and long-term goals. A written plan could also provide a clear framework for communication activities to be monitored and evaluated, to ensure that initiatives reach their desired objectives.

To support the creation and implementation of sub-national plans, a national roadmap or strategy on communicating the Decentralization Reform in Jordan could also be developed as a framework for local communicators. In this regard, the Ministry of Local Affairs together with the Ministry of State for Media Affairs – the institution in charge of steering whole-of-government communications in Jordan - could guide such an endeavour.

For a plan to be implemented effectively, however, local authorities will need to establish formal communication structures, modernize communication capacities and address the uneven levels of skills across and within Governorates. During OECD interviews, civil servants noted the lack of or insufficient human resources and competencies as one of the most pressing challenges in building awareness on local participation opportunities. It was also noted that communication guidelines for local actors are inexistent.

The effective engagement of citizens in the needs assessment process will thus require the hiring and training of dedicated communication staff with qualified and diverse profiles, in particular within Municipal Local Development Units (LDUs) and Governorate Development Units (GDUs). Capacity building efforts could focus on developing relevant skills, such as social media use, communicating with youth, monitoring and evaluation and responding to online disinformation. The government of Canada, for example, provides a series of monthly capacity building events to local communicators (see Box 3.2).

As mentioned in Chapter 2, the lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities has also presented important barriers to information sharing and coordination, including those regarding communication initiatives within each Governorate. The interviews conducted by the OECD highlighted that coordination tends to vary significantly across regions, as the sharing of information (i.e. on participation activities and the list of needs more generally) between Local, Municipal and Governorate Councils, is done informally. The alignment of messages and activities throughout the stages of the needs assessment, both horizontally and vertically across levels of government, is critical to maximise their impact.

In this context, the biggest challenges exist between Municipal and Governorate levels. During validation workshops, government representatives from all levels agreed on the need to increase the coordination of communication initiatives. In each Governorate, regular meetings of the Executive Committee take place every two weeks, but neither records nor an information repository is kept or shared. In this regard, making use of online platforms could help align activities and identify potential synergies between municipal and governorate actors. Indeed, isolated efforts may reduce the impact and awareness of messages and increase the risk of sharing contradictory information.

Consequently, GDUs in coordination with LDUs, could strengthen their roles as the co-ordinating actors of communication activities at the level of each Governorate. By centralizing the coordination role, these actors could organize regular meetings with staff in charge of communications from different municipalities to ensure that activities around the needs assessment process are disseminated effectively. In the UK, for instance, a local government association was created to coordinate consistent and impactful campaigns (see Box 3.3). In addition, the use of online coordination tools, such as Trello or other online scheduling tools, could help map ongoing activities and ensure that the messages are aligned.

Ensuring access to relevant and clear information are key pillars of an open government. The OECD defines access to information (ATI) as "an initial level of participation characterized by a one-way relationship in which the government produces and delivers information to stakeholders” (OECD, 2016). It covers both its provision on demand (i.e. ATI requests) as well as proactive disclosure measures by government entities.

The proactive disclosure of information allows citizens to gain a better understanding of issues that matter most to them (OECD, 2019a). Its proactive sharing not only ensures transparency around the policy making process, but it enables citizens to participate effectively throughout all its stages. As a common practice in most OECD countries, local authorities often publish documents such as (OECD, 2019b):

  • Information on the activities of public authorities;

  • Information on the finances of public authorities (i.e. annual budget, annual budget of previous years, annual financial reports);

  • Public authorities’ news and events;

  • Calendar of activities and meetings;

  • Information on public consultations;

  • Information on public tenders and contracts for public service;

  • Information on partnerships (i.e. with businesses, local influencers, etc);

  • Information on training opportunities;

  • Awareness raising on specific thematic policy areas; and

  • Information on anti-corruption policies and activities.

In terms of ATI, Jordan was the first country in the MENA region to adopt a law in this regard in 2007. However, this right remains under-utilised by citizens and capacity gaps to implement this law exist across the public service (OECD, 2019c). In fact, only 10,305 requests were filed by citizens between 2012 and 2015 and amounted to 12,101 in 2016 (Ibid). Findings from OECD validation meetings noted that these challenges are exacerbated at the subnational level, where procedures to address information requests remain unclear, in particular at the level of municipalities.

As a first step to ensuring an effective communication, the Jordanian Government should promote the proactive organization and publishing of information. Findings from OECD validation workshops yielded that citizens struggle to find relevant information, such as the final local development plan and list of approved needs. To this end, it will be critical to make available in an easy, clear and understandable format basic information on the decentralization reform. The use of clear language would also allow citizens to more easily understand their role, in particular the steps of how needs and budget priorities are identified and set, the responsibilities of Municipal and Governorate Councils, and the opportunities for them to participate. The City of Barrie in Canada, for example, publishes meeting calendars, summary records and material on local policies on a regular basis in their main webpage to facilitate the sharing and access to local public information (see Box 3.4).

In parallel, the effective implementation of the ATI right will require addressing the capacity gaps of sub-national authorities to respond to information requests. In line with OECD practices, a first step to support the implementation of the ATI law will require awareness raising around this right, as well as on the necessary procedures and protocols for local public servants to follow (see Box 3.5 for an example of a board game used in Mexico for this purpose). In this regard the leading implementers of the ATI commitment in Jordan’s 4th OGP national action plan (NAP) – namely the Department of the National Library, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, and the Integrity and Anti - Corruption Commission - could play an important role leading implementation efforts around this law at the sub-national level.

To increase the visibility and momentum around the promotion of this right, the Government of Jordan could consider expanding the scope of ATI commitments as part of the country’s open government agenda to explicitly target local actors. Notably, there is an immediate opportunity to include local stakeholders in activities from commitment 5 of Jordan’s 4th OGP NAP (2018 – 2020), and even greater chances to concretely target these actors in Jordan’s forthcoming 5th OGP NAP. Efforts in the framework of OGP activities led by the Open Government Unit in MoPIC currently focus on the institutionalization of the enforcement measures for the ATI Law with activities around awareness raising, building capacities and monitoring progress. Indeed, equipping local actors with the knowledge and skills to guarantee this right is all the more important in the context of decentralizing the design of local policies and services.

Strengthening transparency at the local level will require authorities to use public communication as a tool to systematically raise citizens’ awareness on decentralization activities and results. In Jordan, only 10% of the population feel informed about the decentralization process, while 57% remain unaware of the new roles of Governorate and Municipal Councils in the design and implementation of Governorate Development Plans (International Republican Institute, 2018). These findings align with OECD survey data, where a majority of sub-national authorities (63%) signalled the lack of awareness of civil society as a pressing challenge for their inclusion in the needs assessment process (See Figure 3.2 and Figure 3.3).

Strengthening citizen participation in the design of local development plans will thus require the provision of timely and relevant information on the entire needs assessment process, including the criteria for selection of budget priorities. Notably, OECD data shows that a majority of NGOs (77%) were not aware of the criteria used to define priorities for local investments in 2018. An even greater share (83%) were not aware of the results communicated by public authorities, and only 10% were informed as to why some needs were or were not funded in 2018 (see Figure 3.4). Thus, the lack of information on the process and its results risks exacerbating general feelings of scepticisms and distrust, which in turn can contribute to growing disengagement levels. To address this challenge, sub-national authorities could consider proactively sharing information regarding the criteria for the allocation of budget priorities, the final list of financed projects and the justification for their selection.

In addition, representatives from Governorate offices noted during validation workshops that citizens struggle to identify priority needs to be translated to local development projects, and often put forward those that are not relevant for the level of government at which they are engaging. For example, needs collected in 2018 were primarily focused on health, education and public roads, which are services that are not provided by municipalities (Khadim, 2018). Therefore, publishing the metrics used for the selection of budget priorities would not only make the selection process more transparent, but it could also increase the relevance of citizens’ contributions.

Finally, while direct communication with the public is a key lever to raising awareness, the media remains an important intermediary and represent an essential element of a democratic society. Journalists can transmit and analyse information, as well as hold the government to account and represent the voices of citizens (OECD, 2019a). Recognizing the media as a partner allows for public communicators to reach a wider audience and strategically disseminate targeted messages. Therefore, the promotion of the active participation of the media in the needs assessment process could help build support around its activities.

Understanding audiences and the behavioural context is a key element of an effective two-way communication approach. Notably, gathering and using audience insights can aid in the delivery of personalized communications to different segments of the population that reflect their diverse needs, perceptions, fears and habits.

Indeed, promoting an open dialogue with citizens requires authorities to understand the needs and media consumption patterns from different audiences to select the appropriate mix of channels for engagement. In terms of information sharing, OECD survey results indicate a clear preference by local authorities to use social media (72%) and formal communication (62%), including the use of official government letters (See Figure 3.5). Interestingly, there is a steep disparity between the use of popular channels and the more traditional ones, such as government websites, TV and Radio. This can be attributed in part to the potential to reduce costs and the current media landscape in Jordan, which has made social media channels more attractive as most news outlets are concentrated in Amman.

Interestingly, citizens generally agree that online communication channels, including social media platforms, are the most effective means for engagement. OECD survey results revealed that social media (73%), emails (43%) and phone calls (43%) were the top three channels selected by CSOs as the most effective means to communicate with sub-national authorities (see Figure 3.6). Moreover, a study by Northwestern University (2017) found that smartphones (77%) are the second preferred means for Jordanians to consult news. Facebook is also becoming an increasingly important source of information, with almost half of the population (41%) making use of this platform for such a purpose.

Where possible, local authorities should make use of data on news consumption trends to tailor their selection of audiences and channels. While social media can be an effective means to communicate, care must be taken in terms of channel selection to ensure that vulnerable segments of the population can also access relevant information, in particular as internet access and digital literacy levels vary significantly across governorates. The State of Victoria in Australia, for example, uses a multi-channel strategy based on the needs of different audiences to consult them on major infrastructure project decisions (see Box 3.6).

As local authorities increasingly turn to social media, these actors could benefit from using online platforms in a more strategic way. There is an opportunity at hand to leverage the immediate, interactive and cost-saving benefits of these platforms, given that more than half of the population actively using WhatsApp (78%), Facebook (70%) and YouTube (49%) (Northwestern University, 2018). However, the OECD found that even though 72% of sub-national authorities had a presence on social media, low levels of engagement and trust remain due to generic posts and insufficient engagement with public comments. Building on the active posting of information on Facebook and Twitter, such as the Municipality of Salt, local authorities could also collect citizen feedback, for instance, during the process of collecting needs and communicating the final selected list of priorities. For example, the City of Vancouver made use of social media to develop its new transportation policy through the use of e-deliberation practices (See Box 3.7).

However, without a tailored strategy or guidelines, local governments’ use of social media will not harness its full potential. Rather, solely sharing information through online platforms may have the adverse effect of disengaging citizens through seemingly unresponsive communication. Recognizing the potential of social media to promote civic participation, sub-national authorities, with the support of MoSMA and MoLA, could prioritize the development of a shared set of guidelines and consider the inclusion of specific objectives and indicators within communication plans.

In addition to choosing the right channels, tailoring messages to the context of local stakeholders through the understanding of different audiences can be an additional element of an effective communication. This is particularly important in Jordan, considering the growing fragmentation and diversity of audiences across and within each of the 12 Governorates.

In Jordan, with close to 70% of the population below the age 30, messages should be differentiated to reflect these demographic factors (OECD, 2018). In this regard, a particular focus should be given to learning more about youth audiences, adapting communications to their preferred means for engagement and exploring opportunities to promote their participation in the needs assessment process. Special attention could be payed to opening spaces for online participation on social media, as the most used platforms by young people (ages 18-22) in Jordan include WhatsApp (82%), Facebook (82%) YouTube (63%) and Instagram (57%) respectively (Northwestern University, 2018). In return, tailoring communication for young people would not only increase the responsiveness of policies and services, but could also promote their engagement in the wider decentralization process. The OECD developed a guide with concrete principles to promote a meaningful communication with youth (see Box 3.8).

In parallel, highlighting messages that reflect specific regional and demographic concerns (i.e. gender sensitive communication, age trends, etc.) could in turn increase participation levels in the needs assessment process. In particular, close attention should be payed to communication with vulnerable segments of the population. To this end, it will be important to ensure a mapping of audiences, potentially by GDUs and LDUs jointly, to tailor messages and channels to the specific needs of each community.

Public communication can be a valuable tool supporting the needs assessment process at the sub-national level in Jordan. To reap its full benefits, efforts should focus on developing a more strategic approach to communicating with citizens by formalizing actions through strategies and plans, coordinating initiatives and addressing current capacity gaps. Ensuring greater transparency and access to up–to-date, clear and relevant information will also be important to enable the participation of citizens in the process to collect local needs. In addition, there is an opportunity for local authorities to develop a more sophisticated use of communications according to the needs and preferences of different audiences.

To this end, the Government of Jordan could adopt the following recommendations:

  • Sub-national authorities could develop, on their own or jointly, a written communication plan to institutionalize communication activities. Such plans would facilitate more effective communications, as well as build awareness and buy-in efforts within government. The plans would also assist the monitoring and evaluation of communication activities to ensure they achieve their desired impact. These plans should be based on audience insights. Ultimately, formal plans should aim to promote the active participation of civil society, private sector, the media and the public at large.

  • Develop a national communications strategy for the decentralization process, to clarify how to inform citizens of the available opportunities for participation, the overall process of the needs assessment, its progress and impact achieved. A national strategy outlining the overall vision of decentralization could serve as the basis for each governorate to develop their own communication plans. The Ministry of Local Affairs together with the Ministry of State for Media Affairs could guide such an endeavour, together with other relevant line ministries in Jordan.

  • Build the capacities of local civil servants to ensure they have the skills to communicate effectively with stakeholders throughout the phases of the needs assessment process (i.e. data analytics, social media use and online participation methods, etc.). In this regard, MoLA could coordinate with the Ministry of State for Media Affairs to develop a communication manual or a set of guidelines. These tools would help standardize procedures, clarify roles and promote a more coordinated approach between the three levels of government.

  • Coordinate messages and communication activities between local and governorate levels. Make use of new digital platforms – such as Trello, Slack and WhatsApp – to facilitate internal communication between government stakeholders from local, municipal and governorate levels.

  • Local Development Councils could strengthen their role as co-ordinating actors of public communication activities at the local level.

  • In regards to ATI, Jordan should continue its efforts to support the effective implementation of this right in coordination with the Open Government Unit in MoPIC. Measures should clarify the rules and procedures around how public institutions categorize and share information, as well as the information flows with citizens. Efforts could also promote the proactive disclosure the needs assessment results and the approved list. This could be done through coordination with the National Library to increase the quality and frequency of data shared with the public. To increase visibility and momentum around the promotion of this right, the Government could also consider expanding the scope of existing ATI commitments in the country’s open government agenda to explicitly target local actors.

  • Governorates could clarify and publish the criteria for selection of budget priorities from the early stages of the needs cycle.

  • Improve the feedback process and clarify why needs were or were not selected. This would facilitate the process of communicating results and impact to citizens, which in turn could help raise awareness and buy-in regarding the decentralization process.

  • Subnational authorities should considering using a diverse range of communication channels to reach a variety of stakeholders based on audience insights to reflect different needs and media consumption patterns. To this end, an initial mapping of audiences could be conducted, potentially by GDUs and LDUs jointly, to tailor messages and channels to the specific needs of each community.

  • As sub-national authorities are increasingly adopting social media to communicate with citizens, it will be important to ensure the existence of social media guidelines, capacity building of public communicators and the adoption of new and relevant skills to match users’ needs. These initiatives could be coordinated with the support of MoLA and MoSMA.

  • Ensure that communication is tailored to the needs of different segments of the population, based on demographic factors and regional needs. I particular, subnational authorities should pay special attention to sharing information with vulnerable segments of the population.

  • Tailoring communication for young people would not only increase the responsiveness of policies and services, but could also promote their engagement in the wider decentralization and policy-making processes. Subnational authorities could consider developing a specific engagement plan with youth, making use of social media platforms, to increase their participation in the design and delivery of local development plans.


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