Building public awareness and dialogue among the government, experts and society requires more structural formats of discussions among government officials, politicians and experts, more willingness to hear each other, and professional media performance. Cooperation with experts has become important recently as due to this cooperation the audience can receive information about complex topics in a clear and interesting format. This was stressed by experts at a discussion held at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.
What’s wrong with public discussions?
The main problem is lack of pithiness and constructive proposals, causing a feeling of chaos and mistrust of society to politicians, experts and the media. In a public discussion, they often shift the focus from discussing political actors and their intentions to a confrontation between different political groups, and then the real point at issue is lost, said Roman Kobets, expert of the working group on government e-governance policies development at the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine – Minister of Regional Development, Construction and Housing and Communal Services of Ukraine. The discussion should be built around the coverage of the problem, solution options and possible consequences of the solution. “Then people can more or less rationally understand what and why the government does and to what extent their interests are taken into account. They get an objective assessment criterion, it slightly lowers the degree of stress, and people begin to trust, because trust is a derivative of understanding,” he explained.
Secondly, politicians are required to respond to criticism in a more constructive way. “We have ministers who do not want to give interviews to certain media, because they used to write ‘bad things’ about them. If we think in such terms, we will never be able to conduct an adult discussion,” emphasized Iryna Solomko, head of the Reanimation Package of Reforms. “We never presume that experts’ position is the most correct, because the truth is born in argument. I believe that experts, the media and the government are the only possible triangle that will help move forward and communicate that the country needs a change.”
In order to make such a discussion possible, it should be conducted on independent platforms with strict professional moderation. “It is important to determine the framework of a discussion to ensure moderation and cut off people with a dubious reputation. (…) If we give them a floor and let destroy a constructive discussion, we destroy the grounds of normal communication,” stressed Pavlo Kukhta, member of the strategic advisers group at the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine to support reform in Ukraine.
The government and experts: how to better hear each other
According to experts, politicians should be more heedful of experts’ advice to develop the best concept, choose the right approach to different audiences and not to harm themselves. Larysa Mudrak, President of the Win Win Communication, described Vaclav Havel’s reform case to return the nationalized property to the heirs of people it belonged to. Vaclav Havel was an heir too, and he was very eager to return his sugar mill, but he listened to the advice of experts and media and did not do this. Otherwise, it could have significantly damaged his reputation.
According to her, for better communication Ukrainian officials require more self-discipline, a sense of shared responsibility, a willingness to be “number ten instead of one”, if necessary, and a little more sense of humor.
Anton Yaschenko, executive director of the Reforms office, believes that in discussions with the government experts should more often appeal to the Medium-Term Action Plan until 2020, which is a road map for all sectors. “This is a very effective tool both for the government, in terms of coordination, and for experts. And if the energy sector experts see the initiative of the Ministry of Energy and Coal Industry which contradict this plan, they can rely not only on their expert opinion but also the government regulation. Therefore, the first recommendation is to pay maximum attention to this document and take full advantage of it,” he noted. The predictability of decisions increases trust in them.
Reforms and media: more cooperation with experts, more initiative and professionalism
Monitoring of media coverage of reforms revealed that in 90% of cases the media notice the problem after it has been mentioned by a representative of some authorities, and the coverage of topics is often reduced to a set of quotes. In most cases, the reader/viewer does not get the vision of the overall picture. The media do not shape the context, noticed Taras Kuzmov, media expert, Ukraine Crisis Media Center. However, it is the media that are responsible for how people will understand and take view of the processes happening in the country. Ihor Semyvolos, director of Middle East Studies Center, pointed out that the media often resort to the language of struggle and a kind of “class hatred”. As a result of these connotations society loses trust in authorities. “Distrust of communications is very harmful to all of us. Society trusts neither the media, nor experts and politicians (…), especially when it is considered that we unveil certain time-honoured myths while introducing reforms. Trust is the catalyst that will enable us to improve the whole system,” emphasized Pavlo Kukhta.
The quality communication of reforms requires close cooperation between the media and experts. It should consist in thorough explanation of issues raised during the panel discussions and translation them into “plain language” for the media. Experts should discuss problems profoundly and professionally. On summarizing the results of these discussions, we should create a product, which through social media can reach consumers or journalists in the form that is best suited to each audience: individually for Internet audience and TV viewers, offers Iryna Shtohrin, radio “Svoboda” representative. “To provide the knowledge-based product needed as a raw material for journalists our analytical material should be translated into a format needed by the media.” This is the issue of cooperation between an expert and communicator. To do this training and resources are required,” noted Hlib Vyshlinskyi, executive director of the Center for Economic Strategy.
A separate issue is the work of the regional media. Although the demand for them and for information on the reforms is very big, the regions often lack qualified experts whom they can address for comments. “The biggest problem is the incompetence of journalists due to the fact that they ‘stew in their own juice’. Their ordering customers are Regional State Administrations or owners rather than the audience; and this is also a problem,” noted Serhii Mamaiev, UA: First, TV-5 (Zaporizhia).
There are already some projects (RPR, UCMC, VoxConnector), which help local journalists to grow professionally and establish contacts with Kyiv experts. At the same time, most experts also need information about what is actually happening in the regions. That is why the regional media’s reports are very valuable to them. “When a journalist is working on topic of pension, healthcare, tax or especially decentralization reform, an expert opinion may contribute 20% to it. The journalist’s function weighs more heavily (…), because reality does not always correspond to what the expert says. Journalists should visit successful or unsuccessful UTCs; show the UTCs that built the road and modernized the school along with those that lose money due to decentralization; talk about successful cases of condominiums and energy efficiency as well as about successful cases of business internationalization, which is very important to Ukraine,” stressed Volodymyr Yermolenko, director of the “Internews Ukraine” European programs. A mini-grant program would allow the regional media to travel and report on what they see. According to Ihor Semyvolos, director of Middle East Studies Center, although local authorities have much information about reforms, they do not understand how to implement them. “The Kyiv experts should help people as far as possible to produce a solution rather than bring or impose this solution to them. When this happens, this solution becomes valuable to them. Then the local media may play a huge role in spreading and promoting it,” he noted.