Improving Public Policy Communication in Belgium: Government Managers Can Better Inform Citizens of Proposed Policies by Ensuring Their Information Is Complete, Timely, and Accurate

By Gelders, Dave | The Public Manager, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Improving Public Policy Communication in Belgium: Government Managers Can Better Inform Citizens of Proposed Policies by Ensuring Their Information Is Complete, Timely, and Accurate


Gelders, Dave, The Public Manager


This article discusses practical aspects of external public policy communication on matters that government has considered or partially approved, but that a higher body--such as the executive or legislative branch--has not yet approved. Despite its close connection with interactive policymaking involving a collective search for a common solution, communicating policy intentions is typically characterized by unidirectional convincing and arguing. This article explains why public communication about policy is so delicate and offers practical case illustrations that demonstrate the unintended consequences of certain communication strategies. It then describes key conditions for good communication and offers best practice suggestions to improve public information performance.

The Communication Controversy

Public communication about policy intentions is an important but delicate issue, particularly when government pays for publicity (brochures, newspaper and television ads, Internet advertising, etc.) to inform the public of policies that have not yet been adopted by the legislature. These paid promotions walk the thin line between objective public information and biased propaganda. The position of a government agency or an agency official may cast doubt on the aim of the message: Is it propaganda (personal or otherwise) and therefore a misuse of public money? Or does it supply transparent information aimed at edifying and involving the public regarding the formulation of a policy?

These questions were raised by the campaign to reform the U.S. Postal Service, leaflets on Operation Rescue and paying for local government in the United Kingdom, and government newspaper ads on working longer in Belgium. Two prime examples of controversial communication are the promotion of toll roads by the Dutch government and the communication measures regarding Belgian drug policy.

Toll Roads in the Netherlands

In 1999-2000, the Dutch Minister of Transport wanted to introduce a toll-road system that already had been agreed upon in government circles. The powerful automobile lobby and a popular national newspaper were against this idea and organized a large-scale counter-campaign, distributing stickers to drivers and waging a negative media campaign. The minister argued that replying to such a protest by press interviews was no longer effective. At her initiative, the Ministry of Transport published a full-color, one-page ad in all Dutch national and main regional newspapers. This action was widely criticized due to the cost involved and because the communication concerned public policy that had not yet been adopted. Moreover, the government ad did not clearly communicate the status of the initiative, referring to the actions as "policy measures" instead of "policy intentions."

Drug Policy in Belgium

Between 2001 and 2004, communication on Belgian federal cannabis legislation was lacking. It was incomplete, untimely, inconsistent, tendentious, and often polemical. The government tried to shed some light on both the policy and status of the legislation by advertising in newspapers in February 2001. The Minister for Public Health also distributed 600,000 leaflets to explain the policy. Discussion surrounding the leaflets focused on the use of public funds in support of policy proposals as well as the manner in which the leaflet presented them.

Critics and even colleagues in the federal government objected to alleged omissions and misleading inaccuracies. The leaflet did not stress that the new bill had yet to be adopted by the Parliament, that the advisory opinion from the Council of State was still required, and that the law had yet to be examined for compatibility with international treaties. The leaflet strongly anticipated a favorable political reception, explicitly stating that the bill would be accepted within a few months; it actually took more than two years before the bill was enacted. …

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