Angry public rallies killing Kenya Kwanza strategy

UDA party Secretary General Cleophas Malala during a press conference that endorsed Raila Odinga's campaign for AUC Chairmanship on Feb 17, 2024. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Poor communication is easily the weakest link in the Kenya Kwanza government. They seem to wade into controversy and antagonism almost at will.

It boils down to their ineffective fire-fighting brand of management and leadership communications. The gears of government policy and programmes don’t seem to interlock with the engines of critical public understanding, both within and without the State.

Programmes stumble and fall at almost every juncture, but especially in the courtroom. State notables and prime movers respond with frustrated ire when things collapse in court. They pledge to go on, anyway, regardless of what everybody else might think. Their noble housing programme is in limbo. So, too, is healthcare, and now payments through the e-Citizen platform. What is the problem? At one level, it’s about a feverish urge to deliver fast results. The urgency makes for little consultation, fidelity to law, and broad consensus.

Eagerness to deliver pushes them towards confrontation, when they should be engaging. At least at face value, the government programmes that are now fighting for survival are noble. Universal health insurance, digital access to government services, and affordable housing; all these are difficult to fault.

At the level of public communications, the government is leaving behind crucial publics. It will be difficult, even impossible, to bulldoze through these agendas without effective communications with diverse publics. “Go jump into the sea” will not work, ultimately.

Persuasive communication is key to success, in everything we do. Even at home, the family patron must carry along the family. This need is, however, most pronounced in public governance. Take the e-Citizen platform, for example. The world is going digital. Remain behind at your own risk and peril. Asia is already in the lead. India and Pakistan are global models. Kenya is a leader in the African digital space.

Yet, we are clearly getting it wrong by leaving critical stakeholders behind, and attempting to bully things down people’s throats?

When you wake up one morning to issue circulars to everybody to make payments through e-Citizen platforms, you place the cart before the horse. Structured engagement and buy-in is what you need. People must know the platform and its merits, beforehand. You can’t sell new things like e-Citizen through hostile, partisan political rallies. To introduce such a major migration, you first need small-scale piloting. It is a matter of common sense.

We need to allow ourselves room to learn from small-scale mistakes with minimum risk. Beyond this, we need to be persuasive to the extent that those who have not been brought on board, get eager to be onboarded. People will otherwise get suspicious, resentful and uncooperative, when they are thundered at by powerful leaderships.

We cannot possibly overemphasize the need for leaders to pause and listen. Next to this is the need for persuasive communication strategies to be pre-existent with the programmes and projects they support, from the very start. You have a huge problem in your hands if your communications are about firefighting. The problem only gets worse when you appear to embrace the philosophy of right by might.

As the Cabinet retreats to review government performance over the next few days, they will do well to appreciate the role of communication as a management and leadership function. They may want to consider effective communication as a deliberate, planned, sustained and persuasive function. 

This function must be present at all stages of planning and implementation. When you do things and ask the communications team to go out and speak to them post the event, you only court resentment.

You pile up on this if you resort to ventilating your grief and frustration at angry public rallies. It does not work that way. It never has.  

Dr Muluka is a strategic communications adviser

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