A conversation I had recently was anchored to why, based on survey research conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives a previous column has dealt with in greater depth, those over 55 were less inclined to interact with Government officials and more interested in their updates. In contrast, those between 18 – 24 wanted much higher interactivity, and far less packaged propaganda. The conversation was around what fuelled the interests of each demographic. I opined that an older demographic still operated within a broadcast mind-set, not knowing or realising the potential of new media to engage with those in power – importantly, on terms set by the interlocutor, not respondent. This shift of power, brought about primarily through a greater use of social media, hasn’t escaped the attention of government, which is currently going around setting a myriad of websites, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages purportedly to get feedback from the public. An older demographic were consumers of government information. Young adults today are more interested in finding out for themselves, first hand, what government officials are up to, and why. Whereas those above 55 may link transparency and accountability to government officials or MPs being more open about what they did and where they were, the interest of those much younger yet of voting age can only be satiated by direct, indeed daily engagement and by creating avenues through which their opinions could be expressed, and they felt were somehow acknowledged.
Our conversation projected into the future the implications of this significant parting of ways from how a government would function in the past with new expectations around the efficiency and effectiveness of governance. I noted that young voters were guided by an essential impatience around systemic change – and that though they were interested in politics and social issues, especially around elections – their understanding around the challenges of institutional change remained poor. We talked about how this could impact perceptions of government, when impatience around the perceived lack of delivery without due recognition of serious challenges could erode, and fairly rapidly, support and goodwill government today enjoys.
We also talked about how engagement influenced, and to what degree, perceptions around governance. Say for example, the government attempted to enlighten citizens on key issues related to the new Constitution, generate greater interest around RTI legislation, or sought greater input around transitional justice mechanisms, using full page mainstream print media ads, radio spots or feature length documentaries on public TV. Given CPA’s polling data, anchored to the Western Province, these campaigns would be far more successful at reaching an older demographic, and not really even make it on the radar of a younger citizenry. For those between 18-24, awareness raising and engagement need to work with shorter attention spans, legibility on 5” screens, and amongst other things, ease of sharing. A full page print ad doesn’t render clearly on a smartphone’s screen. A feature length documentary eats up too much of data, and assumes, erroneously, the economy of attention on TV is the same as mobile devices – featuring multiple, competing stimuli by way of prompts, notifications and apps. Radio doesn’t seem even feature on the radar of young citizens, leading one to believe that save for passive listening in public transport, workplaces and public areas or actively tuning in at specific times and then too more for entertainment and music, radio really isn’t an important medium anymore when it comes to shaping hearts and minds.
Why does this matter? We have today civil society, government, political factions and international actors all competing for attention, and clamouring for support, amongst a constituency that is not really, to use an old metaphor, tuning in to the media and loci where important debates are taking place. Young citizens feel left out and cheated because of campaigns and content that doesn’t really reach or speak to them, and ironically, the Government may reciprocally feel that no matter what they do, the young aren’t really interested in engaging.
The implications – serious I may add – for government from all this in the near to medium term is little to no awareness, and by extension, support, for hard yet vital decisions around long-term nation-building, identity formation, accountability, justice and transparency. Over the longer term, as today’s young adults age into their 50’s, the decades ahead will see – despite government – a revolution in the way governance is carried out. What today those above the age of 55 countenance will not be what Generation Z, in or ageing into their 50’s, will remotely accept. We are witnessing the acceleration of expectations beyond the capacity of current institutions to deliver, an interest in politics beyond just elections or promises during elections, new mechanisms of public naming and shaming well beyond the ability of government to control, and an animated young demographics’ mercurial engagement over new media that even civil society struggles to fully comprehend, much less leverage.
What’s needed? Young people, in government, and not as mere tokenism, but vested with real authority and given the space to fail, and learn from their failures. This requires a radical revision in intra-party decision making structures, as well as the archaic Establishment Code that stifles expression and engagement. Get rid of many currently in charge of public communications and or make them advisors to a new crop of millennials. Redefine external communications as an essential pillar of governance and integral to policymaking. Engage creatives from our ad industry (whose raw talent is often hostage to risk-averse, conventional corporate clients), whose business it is to sell ideas. Use copyleft content on the web that showcases our diversity far better than anything the government has produced. A total reboot of civil society’s models of and approach to advocacy and activism is needed.
Keep an older demographic informed, but a younger demographic engaged. A recipe that government and civil society both ignore at their peril.
Published in The Sunday Island, 21 January 2016.