Citizens mistrust their leaders when the right messages do not come out

There has been a lot of controversial information about President William Ruto's proposed taxes in the Finance Bill 2023.

Last Thursday, I watched Treasury Cabinet Secretary Njuguna Ndung'u attempting to educate journalists on his budget that he had just read, so that they could understand and ask uninformed questions.

This demonstrates the critical importance of communication in governance. When I was the Executive Director of the Institute for Education in Democracy, a group of journalists led by Andrew Teyie, Ben Agina and Martin Mutua requested me to help them create the Kenya Parliamentary Journalists Association (KPJA) with former Speaker Francis Ole Kaparo as its patron.

The KPJA provided a forum not just for Parliament to engage parliamentary journalists but for civil society and others interested in the business of Parliament.

It became a tradition that before and during the budgeting process and its reading, election of new Members of Parliament, or any special debates were undertaken, interested stakeholders engaged KPJA members through meetings or training to ensure the right messages were reported the best way possible. This boosted broader understanding and appreciation of trending issues in society.

This is why I was surprised that the Treasury CS felt the need to educate journalists. In addition, nearly everyone on the streets who was asked what they thought of the budget, responded with a degree of disbelief and mistrust of the government. There are many factors that have contributed to this with the government seeming to be facing serious communication barriers and challenges making clear communication even more critically important for them to succeed.

There appears to be a breakdown of governance communication in Parliament also. The process of public participation, which was the framework for a national dialogue on the budgeting process and discussions on the Finance Bill of 2023 does not seem to have resulted in mutually agreed common decisions and outcomes beneficial to the government and Kenyans.

It is clear that effective communication promotes good governance; however, an enabling democratic, transparent, and good governance environment must be in place so that voices can be heard and citizens genuinely hold the government to account. This requires an inclusive public space and a positive relationship between the government and citizens. Prof Ndung'u informed Parliament that his team conducted effective public participation in the budgeting process and we can hope this helped Kenyans make demands on his team that influenced his decisions and recommendations to Parliament on public financial management and budget expenditure.

However, the Finance and Planning Parliamentary Committee seems to be struggling with communicating why they turned some proposed levies into taxes and to justify why levying taxes and other costs will benefit citizens in the long run.

The benefit of communication is most evident when the basic preconditions for democracy and/or good governance exist - when there are established mechanisms for holding the government to account, and when the government is prepared to listen.

People need to understand actions of leaders and reasons behind those actions especially if they don't appear so favourable to mwananchi. The choice of words by politicians and their behaviour seem to create a rift, and the social and governance gaps appear wider every day; citizens do not feel respected or told the truth and that is why the momentum and trust are lost.

Perhaps because the government has not fully succeeded in rallying all citizens behind a shared cause because the leadership at the top of government and opposition have not appeared to agree on matters of national interests, citizens have remained divided along political lines. This is not good for Kenyans and must be addressed urgently if the national dialogue is to be given a chance. This is perhaps why many are wondering whether the government is genuinely addressing the cost of living or if they are only interested in raising money to pay debts and help them achieve their political agendas.

People are questioning decisions and mistakes that are denied or swept under the carpet, different rules for different people, and unending corruption, which all create confusion, distance, and distrust.