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Public opinion informs decision making in the ministry of education

OPINION
By Robert Wesonga | January 11th 2019

In the past few weeks, the Ministry of Education has curiously managed to hold two opinions polls without announcing that they were opinion polls, and without spending a single cent on any of them. The result is that this institution has got the findings that have informed two key decisions that will have long term effect on education in this country.

Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Howard Kunreuther have written on how opinion polls can be used by policy makers to make decisions. In a paper titled ‘Decision-Making Under Social Pressure: The Political Economy of Debating Socially Sensitive Issues’, they assert that in democratic societies, policymakers often rely on public opinion to make political decisions. The phrase ‘political decisions’ is critical here, and it points to what this column stated a few weeks ago: the constitution may have helped us get rid of Cabinet Secretaries (CS) appointed from elected politicians, but it has not succeeded in getting rid of politics from the technocracy.

First, let me set the record straight. I have never been a Cabinet Secretary. That said, not having been one doesn’t stop me from seeing that being an average Cabinet Secretary in Kenya is not such a Herculean task, provided one masters the art of political manoeuvring and horse trading. Most importantly, when you are a Cabinet Secretary in a country such as ours, you don’t have to make pronouncements grounded in any policy or backed by any serious philosophy. You can actually use the public to help you make decisions in matters that seem to evade your grasp.

Their views

In this case, if you are a Cabinet Secretary, all you need to do is to make statements, call them directives, wait for the public to express their views and fury before realising that your pronouncements are founded on sinking sand and then rescind them. It is that easy. It creates the impression that a lot of thinking and trying to make things work is going on.

It also feeds the illusion that the public is involved in key decisions taken by ministries. In such a scenario where leaders fail to have a serious policy background related to the ministries they run, the taxpayer is often overworked into fury and forced to make policy decisions when somebody is already being paid to make them. Let’s use the case of the ministry of education as instance. In the recent weeks, the Cabinet Secretary in this ministry has overworked the public and used them to make decisions on her behalf.

First, CS Amina Mohamed directed that the new curriculum would not be launched this year after several years of preparation.

To speculate

Predictably, this invited a lot of pressure from the public, with the eventual result that she has since backtracked on the so-called directive and resolved to ensure that that the new curriculum would be implemented beginning this January after all. Of course this is after parents, educationists and publishers stoked the flames that eventually seared the minister’s directive into oblivion.

Some have even speculated that the main reason she buckled under pressure was furore from the business interests connected to the new curriculum, namely, the publishers. This group complained of the colossal losses they would make if the new teaching and learning materials they had produced would not find market. I refuse to speculate, but it is good to know that one Karl Marx once remarked that capitalism, if left unchecked, shall consume everything alongside itself. Well, capitalism is yet to begin consuming itself in Kenya, but perhaps there are things it keeps eating up.

The second of the Ministry of Education’s (MoE) flip-flopping came this week. The ministry again managed to switch the public into overdrive by stating that all letters of admission for Form 1 students that had been obtained directly from schools and outside the National Education Management Information System (NEMIS) were not valid. The directive categorically stated that the only valid letters were those generated online by the system, NEMIS. The ministry got the response it desired.

There was furore as the public protested and eventually top ministry officials altered their own decision. They crumbled under pressure and stated that parents and principals only needed to regularise the new admissions by uploading the details onto the NEMIS system.

Within 24 hours again, the ministry managed to get the services of the taxpayer for free. It is important to note that the Education CS is a diplomat, and she seems to be putting her skills and knowledge to good effect here: just allow the public to be part of decisions so you wouldn’t have to shoulder blame alone. It could also mean that she had no plan in the first place.

It appears that MoE has set the standard that can be adopted by other ministries. They are no longer obligated to make decisions based on thought, philosophy or policy, especially where they are not sure what to do, but rather allow their dubious pronouncements to be rescinded by a furious public. This is not to say that either the public or MoE is right; in the same spirit, let the people decide on this too.

Dr Wesonga is a lecturer in Literature at the University of Kabianga – [email protected]

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