How to make friends and influence people

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In his regular column for the Daily Nation, Co-Editor Nic Cheeseman looks at how Kenya’s government can better capture the support and trust of its citizens, and what they can learn from the successes of Lagos, in Nigeria.

Kenya’s new county governments need to do more to win the confidence and support of their communities. This is important not just to strengthen the system of devolved government, but also to increase support for local taxes. Yet so far, few counties have developed effective communication and participation strategies, and almost none have recognized that they cannot achieve one without the other. This column explains the relationship between communication and participation and proposes a framework for how counties should communicate. In the next column, I will discuss how counties can be more effective at public participation.

The need to communicate and ensure meaningful political participation is not just a moral imperative for county governments, it is a constitutional requirement. However, so far the media and civil society have tended to focus on participation to the detriment of communication. This is understandable, because a number of counties have been accused of failing to reach out to a sufficiently broad cross-section of society. However, it has meant that insufficient attention has been paid to the issue of how the counties are performing where communication is concerned.

This is problematic because communication is an essential part of the political process. Without strong knowledge and understanding of the political system, citizens cannot meaningfully participate. In this sense, public participation and communication are two sides of the same coin. If the aim of participation is to both enhance the legitimacy of the county governments and to make sure the county-level policies reflect local needs, then the people who are participating need to have certain information. Most obviously, they need to know what resources the county has available, how these have been spent in the past, what the county is doing in terms of providing goods and services, and what they can do given the budget constraints that they are operating under. If they don’t, citizens are likely to propose and demand the services that are already being provided or that are unaffordable.

In this sense, good communication is the foundation of good participation. But how can counties communicate effectively?


The 2010 constitution of Kenya requires the county assembly to ‘conduct its business in an open manner’ and to do what is necessary to ensure public participation in key parts of the political process such as budget planning. This is in line with the principles underlying the introduction of devolution, namely the idea that people know what is best for them and so government should be moved as close to the people as possible.

Effective communication is particularly important when new systems of government have been introduced because citizens are typically unsure of how the new rules are supposed to work. This is the case in Kenya. Although the vast majority of citizens can name their governors and senators, many are not clear on the exact responsibilities of the counties, and are not fully aware of the tax raising powers given to county governments by the constitution.

One consequence of this is that many Kenyans underestimate how many responsibilities county governments have and therefore how much revenue they require. This is bad news for the counties, because it means they are not getting full credit for the services that they do provide, which in turn makes people less willing to pay local taxes.

It is therefore in counties’ best interests to establish good lines of communication with their electorates. However, many counties are not doing this for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, one of the legacies of authoritarian rule is that all levels of government remain very reluctant to share information. On the other, many counties have yet to establish effective public relations departments, and so have not developed communication strategies.

If devolution is to be a success, it is important that this changes. A lot of county level leaders have asked me what they can do to improve things. Based on the experience of sub-national governments in other parts of the continent, I have identified the following four strategies as essential components of any effective communication strategy.

1) A broad and innovative advertising campaign

In Lagos, the state government has increased support for its policies and tax collection through a clever advertising campaign that has focussed on helping citizens to see the link between tax payment and service provision. As a result, Lagosians are now more willing to pay tax than they were ten years ago.

These advertising campaigns were effective for two reasons. First, the government improved the quality of a number of key services such as health and so the campaigns resonated with Lagosians’ everyday experiences. Second, the government has adopted an innovative communications portfolio that includes adverts in newspapers, radio jingles, television slots and pop songs. Using just one of these strategies would have only reached some parts of the population, but employing all of these avenues of communication simultaneously ensured that the government reached a broad cross-section of society.

Kenyan counties will therefore need to be creative in the ways in which they engage with their people. Simply making press statements and issuing press releases will not be enough. Instead, counties will need to ensure that they adopt a number of different avenues of communication in order to increase the knowledge and awareness of as many citizens as possible.

2) Branding

Advertising is important, but it will not be fully effective unless governments have a clear brand. To be successful, a brand must be clear and instantly recognizable – for example through a logo that draws on popular imagery – and must stand for something. In other words, it must be clear to people what principles and priorities are behind the brand name.

Once this has been achieved, it is important the new brand is applied to all goods and services supplied by the government. The Lagos State Government has been very effective at using branding and advertising to make sure that Lagosians know exactly which health clinics and schools were built with their tax money. This is critical, because citizens are far more likely to pay their taxes if they can physically see the connection between tax payment and service delivery.

Despite the fact that it is in their own interests to do this, many Kenyan counties have yet to create an effective brand, or to stamp this brand on the services that they provide. This is one reason that many Kenyans are unsure of exactly what it is that counties do. Until this changes, counties will face an uphill battle when it comes to tax collection.

3) Harness social leaders

Communication strategies work best if a common message is reinforced from a number of different directions. This means that in addition to branding and advertising, county governments should be looking to engage with influential social leaders who can help to spread the word. These might be community leaders, religious leaders, or the representatives of local civil society organizations.

In Lagos, the Lagos Inland Revenue Service (LIRS) has tried to hold regular meetings with key groups and social leaders to explain its policies to people who can then help to inform their communities. This involves everything from large public ‘road shows’ to workshops for representatives of different social and economic sectors. It is essential that this kind of communication is not only extended to the elite, but also reaches down to the grass roots and poorer sections of society. In Lagos, for example, the LIRS also held a series of workshops with representatives of the informal sector to communicate its policies about regulating and taxing markets.

Although arranging meetings with these kinds of groups can be time consuming, ultimately it could save counties a lot of time and money. This is because every social leader that the government engages with has the potential to pass the message on to tens if not hundreds of other citizens, reducing the work that the county government needs to do. Communicating with social leaders in this way will also create strong relationships that can be used to encourage citizens to engage in official processes of public participation.

4) Explain and communicate the budget

The budget is the most important document that counties produce. When budgets are well produced and clear to read, they can be an important tool for increasing public awareness and support for devolution – unless, of course, resources are being wasted on excessive foreign trips and corruption. Providing citizens with reliable and easy to read budget information should therefore be a central part of any communication and participation strategy. Such information can be disseminated through adverts in newspapers and summarised on flyers that can then be handed out to members of the community.

Sub-national governments have much to gain from better budget communication. Research on Lagos has demonstrated that a large proportion of the public is unaware of the amount of money that the government spends on services, and of the proportion of resources that go into paying staff costs and maintaining important public goods such as hospitals. This is significant, because these citizens tend to give the government lower approval ratings, and to be less willing to pay tax, than those who have a high level of political knowledge.

The importance of flexibility

In arguing that counties should adopt these four avenues of communication, I do not mean to imply that there is a one-size-fits-all model that can be applied to all places at all times. The communication landscape in every county is different, which requires a carefully tailored approach. Given this, the strategies of communication that I have described are best thought of as an overarching framework.

The precise combination of strategies that will work best in a particular county will depend on whether it is urban or rural, has a strong social media presence, enjoys high literacy levels, and so on: it would make sense for a communication campaign to use Facebook and Twitter in Nairobi, but not in Turkana. What matters is not that each county follows exactly the same plan, but that each county takes communication seriously, and applies the core principles of communication as best they can. If they do so, they will create the possibility of meaningful public participation, which I will discuss in my next column.


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