Kenya Kwanza agenda lacks public buy-in

President William Ruto interacts with construction workers during the inspection of the Ol Kalau NHC Housing Project. [PCS]

When the history of Kenya Kwanza is written, at least one chapter should be devoted to the subject of change management.  This chapter would not spend much time on the quality (or not) of the vision or strategy or the cleverness (or not) of implementation. Or even our “all hands on deck” approach to debt management. It would instead focus on the much harder questions of public buy-in, popular ownership and the rest of the softer side of reform. 

Change management is an entire subject discipline of its own. But let’s start with some context.

We are approaching 18 months of a five-year administration, with our next election set for Tuesday August 10, 2027.  For everyday Kenyans, this seems like a long way away, especially given our current economic pain. For our leadership, last Friday (February 16) was Day 521 since the inauguration.  It was Day 477 since Cabinet Secretaries were sworn in, and Day 441 for Principal Secretaries.  That leaves 1,271 days to that 2027 date.  We are almost 30 per cent along the way.

Traditional wisdom

Looks like there’s much time left but there isn’t. Our traditional wisdom was that the typical five-year political term had three phases – a first year of set-up (and celebration), a three-year middle of “work and business” and a final year of campaigns. Call it our political-business cycle.  Indeed, in worse recent moments, it wasn’t just the final year, but the final two for full-time campaigns.

Isn’t there a different way to work through this cycle?  These are modern, new katiba times, and by now we should have learned to “chew gum and climb the stairs”. The way to look at this political-business cycle is in three 18-month phases.  A first phase to fix legacy issues, share the vision/strategy nationally, build a constituency to support reform and demonstrate initial quick wins (not relaunch launched projects).  A second phase to build, then accelerate momentum and demonstrate real results as initial outcomes, and progress, for the people.  A third phase to sustain change momentum, institutionalise it and maybe win a second term six months later.

If this is the new picture. Where do you think we are? Let me just leave it here for you to ponder.

It doesn’t matter which fancy change management manual one is using – ADKAR, Kotter, Lewin, Kubler-Ross, Nudge Theory or even McKinsey’s 7-S framework – the essential point is the same.  A “picture of today” is agreed, and a “picture of tomorrow” is envisaged. Change management is the soft, non-technical part of the pathway from today to tomorrow, what we call our software.

Not that the methods are the same (and not to say which is superior to the next) but ADKAR (Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement) and Nudge Theory (behavioral “nudges”) could be seen as “bottom-up”, Kotter’s and McKinsey’s are arguably more “top down” and Lewin’s “freeze-unfreeze-refreeze” applies to both.  If we thought about it, this administration is commandeering us – in their “nothing will stop us” way – through the five Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance). Yet many are still at denial-anger.

But officials behave as if we are at the third stage of bargaining.  That “finyaa” (squeeze) everyone and “kaza” (tighten) everything is bearing fruit and we must be moved with speed through the depression stage before rising up for air at the acceptance stage. Forget “take it or leave it”, it is “take it or else”.  Viscerally, this feels like one reason why parts of the KK agenda for Kenyans are ending up in court to the unsurprising relief of the same Kenyans. Ownership and buy-in?

Continuing with this Kubler-Ross illustration, the reality is we are coming to the end of the first of three 18-month phases of transformation still somewhere between denial, anger and bargaining. This should not be the case. As the saying goes, “The key to change…is to let go of fear”.

Here’s where the real conversation begins.  It isn’t Kenya Kwanza’s method of change (if they have any) that isn’t working but its strategy for change. Change is all about people, and one of my favourite pieces by Fred Nickols, a Solutions Consultant in the US, speaks to four strategies for managing change; three from convention and one of his own.  Let’s briefly illustrate.

The first is “empirical-rational”. Simplify this as appealing to our reasoning. That, say, the Housing Fund that started off as a Housing Agenda makes sense to “reasonable Kenyans”. Except that it increasingly doesn’t as the ongoing public participation appears to be telling us. A fund based on a levy that became a tax to build houses, sorry, create jobs, is not the way to convince Kenyans to watch property demolitions on public land which will then build houses for private ownership.

More importantly, this strategy doesn’t work if people see their picture of tomorrow as worse than today; in other words, it doesn’t work where people are happy with their present comfort or discomfort.  This is pretty much the weak “logical” strategy our Housing ministry has used.

Second is “normative-educative”.  Simplify this as appealing and responding to our norms, values and culture.  Basically, our mindsets. On this one, we are nowhere. Yet this is the change strategy – though more long-term than others – that best suits our bottom-up change not just in formal institutions but informal institutions and community settings. As the writer himself says, “people want to fit in…and go with the flow”. This strategy may also sound a little “evangelical” (in the broad sense of the term), but isn’t this how we get our tax and e-citizen compliance up?

For this administration, this strategy needs less “car rooftops” and more “grassroots upwards”.

Speaking about car rooftops, the third strategy is referred to as “power-coercive”.  Because we get every day, the underlying assumption is people are compliant and will do what they are told.  This basic point is reflected in an approach we are seeing to reduce, not increase options, or at the extreme state “it is my way or the highway” (local translation: “mambo ni matatu”).

As the writer notes, if the first strategy was “the carrot”, this one is “the stick”.  It works best where time is short and there is an existential threat.  The trouble with this administration is they spent their first year telling us Jubilee was the existential threat when it was our actual debt.

These first three strategies are conventional.  “Reason”.  “Evangelize”.  “Coerce”.

This brings us to the writer’s fourth, which he calls “environmental-adaptive”.  In his view, this is the most appropriate for a radical transformation moment.  It relies on the assumption that people may be comfortable with the present, but will readily adapt to better circumstances. 

Change strategy

In other words, don’t fix the current house, but build a more attractive one and the people will shift. Call this the “Excite” strategy, where the people, not the leadership, are the drivers of the change. This is the broad change strategy that our Judiciary, despite hiccups here and there, has sought to pursue over the past decade beginning with its Judiciary Transformation Framework.

To be fair, these four strategies are not mutually exclusive, and the trick is to find the right mix.  And there is much more to the design of such strategies than can be explained in a single column.

Paradoxically, on paper if not in action at least, this administration’s agenda, indeed its policy adventure, is well designed for the people-adaptive “Excite us” change strategy.  Reason and coercion isn’t working, and we are not even close to the evangelism that starts at the grassroots.

And it isn’t even about our courts or our litigation.  If there is no public ownership and buy-in at a possible change management core within Kenya Kwanza’s transformation agenda, the agenda could end up as a “how not to do it” case study; even a footnote in our book of history.

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