BY NGUNJIRI WAMBUGU
The failure by the Kenyan government to have a structured official response to the public reactions to the recent parastatal head appointments and related confusion that plagued some of these appointments indicates a government administration that is not fully cognizant of the effect its actions have on how it is perceived. It is like the 6.1 million votes the Jubilee government got in March 2013 are static and will never move away from them!
When President Obama got into office one of the smart decisions he made was to have his campaign manager David Plouffe not join the Obama White House administration. Instead, the man who was credited with getting the Obamas into the White House worked from outside the Obama administration under the rather odd title of ‘Outside Senior Adviser’ to the President.
Plouffe’s primary responsibility was to analyze the actions and policies of the Obama administration from ‘outside’ and identify those that would hurt Obama politically.
He would also compare each policy decision made by the White House with what Obama had promised during his campaign, figure how it would be projected politically where it met such promises, and how to it would be managed and expected fall-outs pre-empted where such policies went against his campaign promises. This advice would then be given to the Obama administration for action.
Plouffe scoured all forms of media to get what the public was saying about the administration, analyzed public perceptions (including using pollsters), and identified current and developing situations that affected the administration. He then pushed the Obama administration to respond to issues the public was unhappy with and ensured the Obama administration deliberately built a brag-sheet of deliverables in preparation for the 2012 re-election bid.
He understood that in the re-election Obama would be judged not on the promises he would make then, but on how he had delivered on the promises he had made in 2008. Plouffe also ensured that the Obama administration did not get so wrapped up in government operations that they forgot that they were essentially a political establishment. He officially joined the White House in 2011 to prepare for the 2012 re-elections and when Obama won the re-election he admitted that Plouffe’s work had been pivotal to that victory.
President Obama understood that a primary danger when you are the most powerful man in the world is how easy it is to start believing your own hype. This is because every political leader’s administration by its very nature is structured to protect them from the effects of their mistakes.
Unfortunately when there is no public feedback a political leader can continue supporting unpopular policies without realizing it. This can be fatal when such a politician expects to be re-elected. It is how politicians win a seat with a landslide one election, and get swept off in another landslide an election later.
President Kenyatta occupies the most powerful political office in Kenya today. As a smart politician he also is most probably getting all the unpopular policies carried out now when he still has time to deal with the fall-out before the next elections. However he needs to develop a mechanism that tells him how to adequately respond to and acknowledge concerns raised by the public, especially when this includes his own supporters.
If Uhuru had a ‘David Plouffe’ during the recent public appointments he would most probably have been better prepared for the possible reactions some of the appointees would elicit from the public, both pro and anti-government. He would then have been advised to have his office emphasize the basis on which they had made these appointments, before announcing them.
For example he would have explained the need for a familiar hand on the LAPSSET project, deliberately focused more attention on the younger appointees, and presented the regional scope of the appointments. This was not done and Kenyans ended up focusing on the age of Francis Muthaura and the ‘strange’ appointment of Abduba Dida.
A ‘David Plouffe’ would also most probably set up regular Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) made up of Jubilee and non-Jubilee supporters across various sectors, to ‘test’ out various government policies and actions. He would research on how to get maximum buy-in from the public on an issue before it was rolled out, as well as how develop ideas on how to message it effectively; what to watch out for; and how to manage expected fall-out where it cannot be avoided. He would also research on what lines of argument work best on respective issues, and who in the Kenyatta administration is best placed to push what argument, so as to attract and retain highest public support for an issue.
As a President who is on record saying he intends to be in office for 10 years he needs to regularly know how he is doing, whether he is on message, and what he needs to do about it. This requires a candid feedback mechanism, and the ability to respond to what it tells him.
(Wambugu is the Executive Director, Change Associates Trust)