Big picture thinking needed from the private sector

Imagine for a few minutes that you are the President of the Republic of Kenya. Less than three years ago you and your colleagues put together a manifesto for the TNA party and for the Jubilee Coalition, in which you laid out what your government aimed to achieve during its term of office.

When teams of experts put such documents together, for sure they dream about a better future for the country, and as far as Kenya is concerned they will definitely do so in the context of Vision 2030. They will also make sure they toss in some headline-grabbing “flagship” projects to catch media attention – in the case of Jubilee, initiatives such as the procurement of thousands of laptops for students, free maternal healthcare, and the Standard Gauge Railway. Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, would call these the President’s “Big Hairy Audacious Goals”, his “BHAGs”.

So much for the political razzmatazz. Such showstoppers must be included, otherwise State House will remain a distant and unrealistic dream for any aspirant. But now imagine you (the President that is) have invited to State House the head of your government’s think tank, the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, and the Chairman of KEPSA. Also present are the Kenya Country Director of the World Bank and (had it still been fully up and running) the Secretary of the National Economic and Social Council. The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the future of the country.

You are aware that the people you have invited are far less interested in the short-term political impact you make. They want to engage with you – as do you with them – on the few overarching issues that, when taken together, will lead to Kenya fulfilling its extraordinary potential. What would you all talk about? What would you not talk about? And how?

To help you out let me report on a small gathering of leaders from the private sector I was part of recently. Those present had all been provoked by what happened at the last President’s Round Table, at which our State House host challenged us to think at a strategic level and to propose the key priorities to him and his cabinet. What a turnaround. Normally it is the politicians – in the West as much as in our part of the world – who are accused of imprisoning themselves in “short-termism” and of mere manoeuvring against their opponents. Yet here we had our top man telling the rest of us to shape up and rise to a higher level.

Good therefore that as a result of the President’s challenge one among our small group decided to assemble his own list of the big issues. And here it is, more or less as he shared it with the rest of us: building infrastructure; creating jobs, especially for young people; reducing poverty; fighting corruption; improving security; transforming productivity and developing our human resource; offering transformative leadership; making it easier to do business (including making regulations more user-friendly) and improving our competitiveness; strengthening the  justice system; ensuring the optimum utilisation of our emerging natural resources; making devolution work; rationalising the budget structure and process; delivering on Vision 2030; focusing on “Kenya Futures” – planning for the demographics of 2050; working on our national values system; strengthening Brand Kenya – and the role of the media within that; and building an efficient and less wasteful public service.

It was just that, a list, a raw initial list. It was as yet unstructured, still to be sorted into priorities, never mind being populated with content. But just seeing it was more than enough to make us sit up and reflect. And I hope it has the same effect on you, dear readers. Remember, you’re in the meeting as President, so these are the areas where you want your people to contribute.

Now imagine you are no longer the President, the recipient of the wisdom of others. Now you are who you are. And you must be intelligent and knowledgeable as you propose to him. Which of the topics from my friend’s list do you adopt as yours? What steps do you propose that will make a difference? What serious, affordable, implementable ideas are you putting forward?

OK, let me be generous. First, just choose your top three issues among those I’ve listed above. That in itself is an interesting exercise, to figure out which ones drive all the others, those without which progress cannot be made elsewhere. Is leadership there? Are the national values? Productivity?  (Am I hinting at my candidates?)

Then, of all the topics, choose the one where you will make your contribution, identifying also to which others it links. Which ones affect the one you have selected, and which others does it in turn affect?

But please don’t just keep your thoughts to yourself. Share them with each other. Stimulate conversations about these subjects with those you know. Write your ideas down, and send them to the organisations I imagined were represented in the State House meeting. And, why not, share them with me, either in the online comments space or by e-mailing me.

Let’s make this kind of strategic engagement much more normal, never mind that it’s far less fun and far more challenging than talking about politics. Surely it is from among the readers of Business Daily that we should expect high quality proposals on what needs to be done to see Kenya surge ahead. We must do more than critique the ideas of others. We must include ourselves among the authors, the builders, of national strategies for transformation.

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More lessons on public private engagement

Thursday 2nd April 2015 was a terrible day for Kenya. It will forever be associated with the devastating attack on Garissa University in which so many innocent people died. But for me and others who had been invited to lunch at State House that day for the 4th President’s Round Table with the private sector it was a day of mixed emotions. On the one hand we were still learning of the horrors of the latest al Shabaab outrage, but at the same time we were inspired by the constructive collaboration between the public and the private and by the decisiveness of the country’s CEO.

Even if the terrorists had not chosen this day on which to launch their unspeakable attack, the media would still have given negligible space to what was being agreed between the government and the private sector. After all, it was just lovey-dovey stuff, about working together harmoniously to build a better Kenya. Which self-respecting reporter or editor would be interested in such peace-love-and-unity outpourings when there’s so much juicy material around on corruption, political manoeuvring, crime and suchlike?

I should add that some observers aren’t happy about the private sector’s “cosyness” with the high and mighty. They should be much tougher, such critics feel, citing areas where progress should be made but is not. I have written about this dilemma before, and I am not shy to repeat that being polite and respectful is not a sin, and that it is not necessarily a sign of weakness. Of course it is guaranteed to attract negligible media coverage if any, but I firmly believe that business people must work with and not against the government.

Most of what they do is going to be far more effective if it is indeed away from the public glare. But the challenge with such an approach is that much of it goes unrecognised, and even where the private sector agenda is advanced as a direct result of quiet negotiation it’s too easy to assume it was not a factor. It’s the lot of unsung heroes on both sides, and one they willingly accept – given that the macho alternative, while offering instant gratification, is actually quite unlikely to deliver the goods.

In some neighbouring countries, where the atmosphere is less liberal, the private sector’s attempts to speak out have, with some justification, seen them branded as supporters of the opposition, as a result of which they have been shunned by government. How the private sector should behave is a delicate matter. And as I have said before, there is a place for ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ strategies. The hard-ball approach of much of civil society offers a good complement to the inevitably softer touch of business, and of course circumstances vary widely, over time and across situations.

Is KEPSA always on target in how it selects the priority issues for its National Business Agenda? I for one have no problems with its choices, and if significant progress in creating an enabling environment for business is to be made, it must be very selective. At this Presidential Round Table the focus was on integrity, the improvement of government processes and the further spread of e-government. Surely one can’t argue with such a trio.

In his remarks, KEPSA Chairman Vimal Shah praised the responsiveness of the government, delighted that so much had been so swiftly agreed in the morning meeting that had preceded the lunch. And when CS for Industrialisation and Enterprise Development Adan Mohamed and Deputy President William Ruto followed him, they too appreciated the way the government and the private sector were working together for the good of the country.

William Ruto made an important point when he emphasised the need to meet continuously and frequently. For when people keep a distance from one another it is too easy for negative stereotypes to be reinforced, and for the natural mistrust between the sectors to be perpetuated.

Now to the climax of the meeting, to the address of the president, who put on a stunningly impressive performance. He started by stating that he was very pleased with the progress being made as a result of the Round Tables. “I wanted this government to be business-friendly, to help this country be competitive and to promote prosperity and the creation of jobs,” he said, while admitting that they have not moved at the pace he would have wanted. “We must up the pace and conclude issues. We must quickly overcome legislative and bureaucratic hurdles, and it’s more important that we do so now, as we worry about increasing competition from neighbouring countries.”

The president then made a fine managerial point: “We are not meeting here to sort out minor details. Some of what we discussed this morning should have been handled at the Ministerial Stakeholder Fora, which should be meeting monthly and be action-oriented and deliver results.” The president added that he had instructed his Chief of Staff to give him regular briefs of these meetings, including the minutes. “We are here to look at strategic competitiveness issues, at what we need to do to be the regional hub – not to talk about VAT refunds or Import Declaration Form problems. The ministers have full authority to do their jobs,” he reminded them, his impatience with indecisiveness and pettiness obvious.

What an execution-focused leader! What a contrast to how he once described his predecessor as a “hands off, eyes off president” at a lunch of the American Chamber of Commerce. Here’s how the president concluded: “We must work to narrow the gap and operate as a seamless team, with no differences and with a single, clear-minded objective. It is why I apologised recently for past injustices, because it’s not good to be looking in the rear-view mirror – the view through the front windscreen is much broader. The past is to learn from, not to live in.”

Well said, Mr. President. And I hope those charged with rapid response to security challenges take note.

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