35. In governance, statecraft is stagecraft

Kap Kirwok

25th May 2013

We learn in business school that images convey messages–both subtle and obvious; messages in turn help form impressions; and impressions lead to conclusions and decisions.

The past week was full of images and messages – from government – and we can be sure impressions were formed. Soon conclusions and decisions could follow.

Perhaps the biggest image/message splash was the screaming headline by the Daily Nation -“Ruto’s luxury jet hire to cost Sh100 million.”  If that felt like a knife penetrating flesh, the Television caption of the same story, “The Hustler’s Jet”, must have felt like the same knife being twisted. Ouch!

The social media, as usual, lit up like a Christmas tree. Anonymous commentators had a great time trying out their best sarcasm. ‘Ma hustler na ma sufferer reloaded’ said one. ‘Well, now you have proof it is a digital government, they are even flying digital,’ said another. Another one exclaimed, “What a great way to start 100 days! First off the butt is 300,000 dollars of tax payer money for every 3 months for my Deputy President to travel in opulence and luxury.’

Perhaps the most politically sarcastic was this: ‘Let us accept and move on’, obviously making reference to the refrain after the election petition ruling.

Smelling blood, the opposition was quick on the draw. The voluble Machakos Senator Johnson Muthama accused the government of ‘copious consumption at the expense of millions of poverty stricken Kenyans.’

Soon there were unconfirmed reports of ‘mostly shoe shiners’ in Limuru taking to the streets to protest the misuse of government funds. From a trickle, this was becoming a flood.

It does not matter whether such accusations are fair or unfair, true or untrue; the point is this: public support is the definitive variable that determines the success or failure of any government. Any government coming off an electoral victory, especially one as contested as Jubilee’s, has a brief window of opportunity to build positive momentum for its programmes. It needs to be on the right side of public psychology.

Public psychology is a complex animal but it obeys certain laws. First, it is driven by unconscious biases. In other words, the images and messages received simply reinforce an underlying perception. Under such circumstances, the distance between image and message, and conclusion and decision is measured in a blink of an eye!

Second, public psychology is subject to what is called the grasshopper-to-locust effect. A few individual grasshoppers, under the right conditions, recruit their neighbours to form an unstoppable swarm of locusts. A few negative incidents can easily reinforce each other and snowball into a dominant perception in people’s minds. It is said that most people are conformists and find it easier to jump onto the bandwagon. We have seen it in the manner a few MPs and County Representatives easily jumped onto the ‘higher salaries or else…’ bandwagon.

Third, public opinion is reversible. What appears settled opinion today may not be the case tomorrow or even a few hours later. This is the good news. Everyone likes to be on the side of the winner. Most people are generally hungry for good news and will be happy to change their opinions if there is persuasive evidence.

If the Jubilee government is to succeed, it needs to understand these basics. It has to be much better at shaping public opinion and managing citizen expectations. And the best way to do this is not by dissembling and dodging – that would be dishonest and propagandist – but by coming clean every time. The luxury jet incident, for example, may be fully justified and could even yield significant benefits to the country in future. This could have been quickly and fully explained in a way that honours any confidentiality commitments. More importantly, whenever a mistake is made – and there will be many to come– nothing will endear citizens to their government more than an honest admission.  Come clean promptly, give full accounting and you win the confidence of the people. Simple as that.

But more concretely, it is easy to reverse negative public opinion through real and demonstrable results. This needs to happen quickly to counter the growing perception that this government is reckless and insensitive in the way it spends scarce resources. There is also a perception that it is unable to rein-in runaway insecurity, and has been indecisive in the appointment of the last the two Cabinet Secretaries. These need to be countered not only through decisive action, but honest and prompt accounting to the public. Remember: statecraft is mostly stagecraft.

As it gets down to brass tacks, this government needs to make sure what it says and does squares up. Anything less creates dissonance in the public mind. In short, it needs to remain on the right side of public psychology – always.

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