Public information and the Aquino administration

In the Philippines, the Office of the Press Secretary gets transformed into a “communications group” with three heads instead of one. What used to be the government portal is now called the Official Gazette. The Aquino administration is also maximizing social media in trying to reach out to the people.

One of the three heads, Herminio Coloma, said that the new communications group wants to establish “free-flowing communication” between the people and the government. Coloma said that his group would use the three Fs in public communication — feed in, feed forward and feedback.

With the help of a centralized website and social media like Facebook and Twitter, the Aquino administration hopes to get “all kinds of input and feedback.” Even if Coloma and the two other heads (Ricky Carandang and Manuel Quezon III) did not explicitly say it, they are apparently open to getting input and feedback both positive and negative. How can they, after all, get the people’s perception if they ignore the latter?

How the website is created could help in getting input and feedback from online users. Analyzing the source code of selected pages in the Official Gazette, one immediately notices the use of WordPress (WP) as a content management system (CMS). Its source code needs to be reviewed as there is no disclosure in the footer as regards the use of WP as CMS (which is usually the case for many WP-generated blogs and websites).

That the website uses WP simply means that articles could be designed and laid out like blog entries where it becomes convenient for an online user to leave a comment. This is apparently the case with some entries like President Benigno S. Aquino III’s state of the nation address (SONA) last July 26. However, there are pages where comments are not allowed, as in the case of an article titled “A Social Contract with the People” which outlines President Aquino’s campaign platform which he intends to implement.

It is too early to tell if this is a case of selective openness on the part of the administration. The website, after all, is still a work in progress as more content needs to be uploaded. One can only hope that the Aquino administration’s communications group would enable comments in all posts and pages.

While it is laudable for the Aquino administration to maximize social media in trying to get its message across, there seems to be no explanation from the communications group on the nature and orientation of the message it wants to convey. Yes, the powers-that-be always harp on truth and accountability in governance, but what is lacking in their policy pronouncements is how they would set up an effective public information system in the country.

As I noted in a previous post, public information has become synonymous with pro-government propaganda through the years: “Unfortunately, the public has come to accept the likes of the PIA [Philippine Inforamtion Agency] and NBN [National Broadcasting Network] to always toe the government line. They have been conditioned to think that this is the normal state-of-affairs and that the people will just have to live with it… As a result, it becomes unthinkable for a government-owned or controlled news media organization to become independent or hard-hitting. That a public information system could be independent but still subsidized is possible but the government prefers not to do this.”

If the Aquino administration really aspires for transparency in all government affairs, it should start by openly declaring that the new public information system is the exact opposite of what past administrations had. As the term “public information” suggests, the Aquino administration should not think twice about disseminating information that matters to the people, even if these do not put some government officials in a good light. Public information is not about giving good publicity to the powers-that-be. As I wrote before, it should be “free from any political color and could therefore come from any source,” including the opposition.

If the powers-that-be have a firm grasp of the definition and essence of public information, they would know that sugar-coating reality through one-sided reports is counter-productive to the shaping of public opinion.

It is obviously not too late for the Aquino administration therefore to answer this very basic question: What is your concept of a public information system? For the administration’s sake, however, it should be answered at the soonest possible time.