Management Consultant Mike Eldon

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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