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State should change tack in articulating its activities

By Kamotho Waiganjo | June 7th 2015 at 00:19:16 GMT +0300

Like many Kenyans I watched the Citizen Television interview with Deputy President William Ruto with unmatched interest.

When I first learnt that the Deputy President was going to appear for the interview, I expected that he would have negotiated some rules of engagement that would allow him to state his position without vigorous attacks on graft allegations that have dogged his office recently.

But having previously watched him and his interviewer, Hussein Mohammed, I expected an explosive but interesting interview. The two did not disappoint. Hussein was respectful but unrelenting, giving space for the DP to say his piece but being politely aggressive in his questioning. The DP managed to respond to every issue eloquently, passionately and confidently. It obviously helped, and I must admit I was disappointed by this, that Citizen had obviously not done much research on the issues they were raising with the DP. Hussein appeared to be largely relying on media reports on the various allegations he put to the DP as opposed to basing it on independent research. Consequently, the DP had more facts than his interviewer on every point and Hussein appeared to lack the information that would challenge the DP’s facts.

But there can be no doubt that generally speaking, the interview left the DP, at the minimum, with benefit of the doubt. The interview left me with several impressions. Firstly, that this kind of opportunity for public “cross-examination” of senior government officers is extremely useful, especially where allegations about their personal conduct is in the public domain.

The culture of shielding public officers from public scrutiny needs to end. It’s also important to recognise that as a people, we are very good at propounding allegations, which the public easily upgrades to truth if they are not controverted. Sessions like this help to give the “accused” the opportunity to challenge allegations while being confronted with opposing facts. What one finds is that in many situations, the accusers have depended more on rumour than verifiable facts.

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Naturally this kind of process is not worth much if the challengers have not produced facts to interrogate the narrative being fronted. But ultimately this process leads to a greater confidence not just on the Public Officer in question but on Public Officers generally.

Secondly at a more macro-level, it is made me think that it is time for Jubilee government to rethink its communication strategy. Jubilee would be able to explain and sell its policies a lot better if it used such avenues to clarify its programmes and respond to its critics. For instance, that 30 minutes interview communicated more about government ongoing approaches on security than any speech the DP would have given in some tired forum.

There obviously is a place for policy speeches and occasional roadsides. But because such speeches are sermonic, without challenge, people hardly pay attention. However, this strategy is only effective depending on whom Government makes the key communicator of its message. There has to be a combination between profile on the one hand and substance, eloquence passion and colour on the other. Hate him or love him, the DP is obviously one of the best communicators in the Jubilee government. Government communicators must have almost equal profile and similar eloquence.

In presidential systems, the office of the presidential spokesman, as the principal communicator of government positions and policy, is so critical that its profile is similar to that of Cabinet Secretary. It is also an office where one is appointed not so much on the basis of their academic qualifications and experience but on their capacity not just to appreciate substance but also to communicate eloquently and passionately. Because the President and his Deputy are great communicators, it will help once in a while to allow them a non-sanitised opportunity for grilling on key agendas.

But on the broader scale, the Citizen TV kind of process requires a regular voice that clearly has profile and is able to respond substantively and eloquently to the myriad queries that dog government. That voice is so far absent. Jubilee may be doing significant programmes, but in the absence of an effective communication strategy, it is increasingly known for social media optics than substance.

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