INTERVENTIONS THAT ARE NEEDED IN ORDER TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE MEDIA TO THE CONSULTATION, FORMULATION AND IMPLEMENTATION STAGES OF THE POLICY CYCLE IN THE MALAWIAN CONTEXT
The media play a critical role in national development, but this role has often suffered setbacks in the Malawian context due to the alienation of the media in the consultation, formulation and implementation stages of the policy cycle. An analysis of the situation reveals that this is because the media are left out at the conception, or problem identification, necessitating a paradigm shift that entails engaging the media from the conception, or problem identification, to the implementation stages if the media are to play an active role in the policy formulation and implementation stages so that their contributions are incorporated in national development goals.
A policy is a decision implying impending or intended action (Bauer and Gergen, 1968: 21). In analysing policies, two aspects are generally considered the most significant, namely, process (policy making) and content. According to Bauer and Gergen, the mass media are among the external groups which influence the policy process at its various stages. These stages include problem identification (articulation), policy recommendation (aggregation), policy decision (adoption), policy implementation, policy evaluation, and policy resolution or change (). Lambeth (1978) indicates that the functions of the media in the policy process include anticipating problems in advance of public officials, alerting the public to problems on the basis of official warnings, informing the public of the stakes the competing groups had in solving problems, keeping various groups and the public abreast of competing proposals, contributing to the content of policy, deciding the tempo of decision making, helping lawmakers decide how to vote, alerting the public to how policies are administered, evaluating policy effectiveness, and stimulating policy reviews (Lambeth,1978 :12).
However, while the policy makers acknowledge that the mass media serve a number of functions within the context of government policy making (Olengurumwa, n.d.), the media are often left out of the conception, or problem identification, stage, as a recent policy development in Malawi attest. The Democratic Progressive Party administration, through the Malawi Communications Communication Authority has recently formulated a draft Communications Act (Broadcasting/Content Services) Regulations 2015 without engaging the media industry from the onset (Mpaka, 2015). According to Malawi News, the government is proposing a slew of provisions on how public, private and community broadcasting should operate. A clear indication that the media industry was not consulted from the onset is raised by Media Institute of Southern Africa-Malawi Chapter chairperson, Thom Khanje, who is quoted as saying thus: “This document has a huge bearing on our democracy and government should be as transparent as possible with it. It should ensure that all areas of concern are debated on thoroughly and recommendations adopted.”
Therefore, it is apparent that the media are not involved in the policy conception, or formulation, process necessitating the need for more inclusiveness in the policy development process in Malawi. In this case, inclusiveness in policy making entails that players in the industry should be involved from the onset in the identification of a need, which, informally, implies a probe on that which should be attended to or resolved when something is missing, wrong or not working right, and action must be taken to deal with the troubling situation (Altschuld and Kumar, 2010: 3). Sometimes the word need is substituted with words such as problem, gap, deficiency, discrepancy, issue or concern (Altschuld and Kumar, 2010: 12). According to Altschuld and Kumar, a probe is done when a discrepancy is perceived— activities are not taking place in the way we think they should. Formally, need is the measurable gap between two conditions—“what is” (the current status or state) and “what should be” (the desired status or state”. Therefore, decision making occurs as a reaction to a problem or an opportunity (Robbins and Langton, 2003: 408). They describe a problem as a discrepancy between some current state of affairs and some desired state, requiring consideration of alternative courses of action. The two conditions must be measured and the discrepancy between them determined. Not doing so means that a need has not been directly identified. Inherent in needs is the idea that players must go beyond discrepancies to rectify factors causing needs (Altschuld and Kumar, 2010: 3). Therefore, the media industry should be engaged in policy formation interventions from the onset for it to contribute positively towards the policy formulation and implementation process.
However, the continued exclusion of the media at the issue or problem identification stage runs counter to principles of democracy since countries that have embraced egalitarianism— which entails that all citizens of a state should be accorded equal political, social, economic, and civil rights and privileges (Kurian, 2002: 105) — need to prioritise inclusion in policy development, and Malawi is no exception. Experience has shown that involvement of individuals conversant with their areas of focus may contribute positively towards attaining goals due to their cumulative knowledge, or literacy, in a particular context, in this case media. Hence literate thinking is viewed as the ability to think and reason like a literate person within a particular society, literally learning as socially based experiences (Langer, 1991: 17). The media could, therefore, contribute positively towards the attainment of policy goals once they see themselves as part of the process. It is, therefore, acknowledged that “The free press plays a critical role in the formation of sound public policy. The press produces a forum in which policy ideas and initiatives are tested and formed in the arena of public opinion” (Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility, 2015).
It is only when the media are involved that they may not feel marginalised during the policy implementation stage, especially after experience has shown that if a decision maker faces a conflict between selecting a problem that is important to an organisation and one that is important to the decision maker, self interest tends to win out (Robbins and Langton, 2003: 411), implying that if communities of interest, in this case the media, are not involved from the beginning, or do not show interest from the start, they are more likely to lose out as policy makers enforce decisions that work to their advantage. Again, it has been proven that “groups tend to jump prematurely to solutions before identifying and prioritising needs or delving into what underlies them” (Altschuld and Kumar, 2010: 4). But, according to Altschuld and Kumar, needs, not solutions, have to be the concern, and groups must be kept on target, thinking first about needs. Otherwise, they warn, poor or unfitting solutions could be implemented at considerable cost of time, energy and fiscal resources. Secondly, exclusion of the media in policy formulation may lead to failure to address gaps, as it has been proven that it is possible for policy makers to mistake mere investigations in one or two conditions with needs assessment (Altschuld and Kumar, 2010: 4) especially when, in some instances, need is inferred or sensed— “Tell us what you think is needed” (a solution approach) — instead of “Help us to delineate discrepancies targeted for action”. Needs sensing is cheaper, quicker, and easier to conduct, but at best it is only about implied gaps. While of value, it falls short of what we see as a needs assessment (Altschuld and Kumar, 2010: 4). Thorough needs assessments are, therefore, important because they have an impact on what organisations do and how they change. Therefore, needs assessments must go beyond the technical aspects of procedures, which, although important, are far from enough (Altschuld and Kumar, 2010: 8).
This notwithstanding, some challenges abound in the policy making process because the press does not show interest. For example, “the press rarely follows the policy process to its conclusion. Rather, it leaves the issue at the doorstep of public officials. By the time a political issue reaches the stages of policy formulation and implementation, the press has moved on to another issue” (Burns, Peltason, Cronin, Magleby and O’brien, 2002: 238). According to Burns et al, when policies are being formulated and implemented, decision makers are at their most impressionable, yet the press has little impact at this stage. Therefore, lack of press attention to how policies are implemented explains in part why citizens know less about how bureaucrats go about their business.
In conclusion, the media can play a more defined and pronounced role in the development and implementation of policies but, in the current set up, this is not the case because the media are excluded from policy formulation process. The media are, therefore, playing a limited role in the policy implementation process, and their impact is minimal, though the situation can be reversed once policy makers become more inclusive and the media take a keen interest in policy issues.
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