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Balancing the State and people power

Eight years ago I wrote a column about Why Nations Fail, the book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and more recently I acquired the subsequent one by these two economics professors, The Narrow Corridor.

It’s another global analysis of how liberty and wellbeing flourish in some states but degenerate to authoritarianism or anarchy in others.

New opportunities and threats emerge, as some successful societies continue to thrive while others falter.

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson concluded that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are much more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few.

Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, which distribute political power widely so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.

Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold on to power.

What are they telling us now, in The Narrow Corridor? In most places and at most times, the strong have dominated the weak, and human freedom has been suppressed – either by force or merely through customs and norms.

States have either been too weak to protect individuals from these threats or they have been too strong for people to protect themselves from despotism. Liberty emerges only when a delicate balance is struck between the state and society.

Which nations are more likely to succeed and to fail today? Which countries are becoming more inclusive in their economics and politics, and which ones will be leaving the narrow corridor of balanced liberty that requires adequate but not excessive state power?

With Covid having intensified inequality between rich and poor, between the digital and the non-digital, is the corridor narrowing further – including in countries like America?

And with ones like Hungary, India, Turkey and the Philippines having shifted to more autocratic styles, we have been confronted with the reality that political liberty is not such a steady or durable phenomenon.

Is Kenya within or beyond the narrow corridor? And either way, where are our ever-manoeuvring politicians taking us? Are we still just passive citizens waiting for our tribal princes to tell us for whom to vote?

Or will we at last select those who best understand what lies within the narrow corridor and how to have us inhabit this privileged space?

If America itself is finding it hard, with Republicans burying their heads in the Trumpian sands as they deny truth and sneer at science, and with us facing our elections in a year’s time, should this be cause for gloom and doom?

During our years since independence it could be argued that we have done better than many other countries – and not just in Africa – at surviving within the narrow corridor, balancing the power of the state and that of the people.

We should feel good about our evolution into multi-party politics and the devolution of power to the counties, about our reasonable freedom of speech and our relatively open economy.

Could we have done better? Of course. Will we? That’s a hard one. We have among us everything from Utopian optimists to self-flagellating pessimists.

What’s for sure is that, as everywhere, the struggle between state and society will continue. But it is not further constitutional tweaks, with yet more laws and regulations that will take us closer into the desired corridor or keep us there.

And it is not more duplication and fragmentation of state institutions.

No. It is all to do with values and how these are reflected in behaviour. How are we encouraging good behaviour, that promotes integrity and cohesion? And how are we penalising bad behaviour that prevents it?

We citizens must take seriously our responsibility for influencing the leaders of state institutions in ways that can see our vision of shared prosperity be actualised.

With all the talent and energy that exists in Kenya, surely this is doable.

How poor governance causes projects to fail

I was recently involved in a discussion about an IT project that was facing challenges, where the IT expert from one of the Big Four consulting firms who was with us introduced me to a new term, “project governance.” I liked it, for it places emphasis on the leadership that guides the progress of the project, ensuring that the technical folk involved are able to guide it to a smooth launch, while overcoming the inevitable challenges and setbacks that come their way.

I smiled as I heard about the issues preventing this software system from going live, for it reminded me of all my turbulent years in the IT-vendoring business. I was filled with nostalgia as I contributed to the discussion, where those involved described what ails them and what they’re doing about it. I’ve not been active in that arena for many years, but what struck me was how familiar it all sounded.

Amazing in a way, as so much has changed in the IT world since I left it – never mind since I joined it in 1967. Yet what I saw was that, to translate from the French, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” At least the governance aspects.

So what were the issues preventing the new generation system from going live? I am certainly not going to bore or confuse you with the technical ones, but here’s what emerged at the governance level. First, the overseas-based vendor was not sending appropriate technical experts to solve them, and when matters were escalated to their head office they sent another who had to study everything from scratch.

Meanwhile at the user end they kept coming up with changes that interfered with the smooth flow of the process. The longer this went on the more complicated finding solutions became, and so the consultant proposed a comprehensive review of the project by an independent external expert.

Now here’s another example of the need for robust project governance: the digitisation of the courts. It was back in the eighties when the IT company I was leading first introduced word processing into Kenya’s judiciary, an institution that was then – as it is now – very far behind the times in using technology. And that’s putting it mildly.

It was 10 years ago that they had a go at bringing in digital courts, where lawyers and their clients could interact with judges via video link. But the facilities quickly fell into disuse, just as the attempt to have stenographers transcribe court proceedings in real time faded out, leaving the judges to continue with the manual note taking they had been used to. The Court Management Information System introduced in Dr Willy Mutunga’s time as Chief Justice is also not in use.

So with the Coronavirus crisis forcing the closing down of the physical courts, what change management will the judiciary finally put itself through to ensure that it joins the rest of us in the 21st century? What energised project governance will it introduce to make a virtue out of the necessity of the day?

How will the appropriate financial and human resources be made available to ensure that this time what everyone knows should happen does so? In the past, going way back to my awkward 1980s project, the launch of the new IT system faded out when the enthusiastic and competent person leading the initiative left the judiciary, and I understand this has happened since.

This time we must not allow that to happen. There is so much technology expertise in this Silicon Savannah of ours. Let us bring in whomever we need and provide the necessary resources so that better late than never we see this vital arm of government take advantage of what technology can offer to transform its effectiveness and its integrity.

This time we must ensure that the right kind of project governance takes these projects to the point where they become the new normal, leading us to ask why it didn’t happen much sooner. And a final thought. I’m a great fan of the Rapid Results Approach: go for 90-day quick-win objectives, and empower the team to break through all the bureaucracy. Get going, members of the judiciary, and this time make it stick.