Kenya’s new county governments need to do more to win the confidence and support of their communities.  This is important not just to strengthen the system of devolved government, but also to increase support for local taxes.
Yet so far, few counties have developed effective communication participation strategies.  The need to communicate and ensure meaningful political participation is not just a moral imperative for county governments, but also a constitutional requirement.

Without a strong knowledge and understanding of the political system, citizens cannot participate meaningfully.  In this sense, public participation and communication are sides of the same coin.  In the aim of participation is to enhance the legitimacy of county governments and to make sure county-level policies reflect local needs, then the people that are participating need to have certain information.
The people need to know what resources are available, how these have been spent, what the county is doing to provide goods and services, and what they can do given the budget constraints.  If they don’t, citizens are likely to propose and demand the services that are already being proposed, or that are unaffordable.
In this sense, good communication is the foundation of good participation.  The 2010 Constitution requires the county to “conduct its business in an open manner” and to do what is necessary to ensure public participation in key parts of the political process such as budget planning.  This is in line with the principles underlying the introduction of devolution, namely the idea that people know what is best for them and so government should be moved as close to the people as possible.
Effective communication is particularly important when new system of government have been introduced because citizens are typically unsure of how the new rules work or exact responsibilities of the counties.  It is therefore the best interests for counties to establish good lines of communication with their electorates.
Based on the experience of sub-national governments in other parts of Africa, counties need to note the following four strategies as essential components of any effective communication strategy.
1.    Innovative advertising campaign
In Lagos, the state government has increased support for its policies and tax payment though a clever advertising campaign that has focused on helping citizens to see the link between tax payment and service provision.  As a result, citizens are now more willing to pay tax than they were 10 years ago.
These advertising campaigns were effective for two reasons: First, the government improved the quality of key services such as health and so the campaigns resonated with every day experiences.
Second, the government has adopted an innovative communications portfolio that includes alerts in newspapers, radio jingles, television slots and pop songs.  Using just one of these strategies would have only reached some parts of the population, but employing all of them simultaneously ensure that the government reached a broad cross-section of society.
Kenyan counties will, therefore, need to be creative in the ways they engage with their people.  Simply making press statements and issuing press releases will not be enough.  Instead, counties will need to ensure that they adopt a number of different avenues of communication to increase the knowledge and awareness of as many citizens as possible.
2.    Branding
Advertising is important, but it will not be fully effective unless governments have a clear, recognizable brand – for example, through a logo that draws on popular imagery – and must stand for something.  In other words, it must be clear what principles and priorities are behind the brand name.
Once this has been achieved, it is important the new brand is applied to all goods and services supplied by the government.  The Lagos State Government has been effective at using branding and advertising to make sure that the people know exactly which health clinics and schools were built with their tax money.  This is critical because citizens are far more likely to pay taxes if they can physically see the connection between tax payment and service delivery.  Many Kenyan counties are yet to create an effective brand.
3.    Harness social leaders
Communication strategies work best if a common message is reinforced from a number of different directions.  This means that in addition to branding and advertising, county governments should be looking to engage with influential social leaders to spread the word.  These might be community leaders, religious leaders, or representatives of local civil society organizations.
Lagos Inland Revenue Service (LIRS) has held regular meetings with key groups and social leaders to explain its policies.  These people then inform their communities.  The campaigns involve everything – from large public “road shows” to workshops for representatives of different social and economic sectors.  This kind of communication should reach the grassroots.
The Lagos service also held a series of workshops with representatives of the informal sector to communicate its policies about regulating and taxing markets.  Although arranging meetings with these kinds of groups can be time consuming, ultimately it would save counties a lot of time and money.
4.    Explaining the budget
The budget is the most important document that counties produce.  When budgets are well produced and clear to read, they can be an important tool for increasing public awareness and support for devolution – unless, of course, resources are being wasted on excessive foreign trips and corruption.  Providing citizens with reliable and easy to read budge information should therefore, be a central part of any communication and participation strategy.  Such information can be disseminated through adverts in newspapers and flyers.
Sub-national governments have much to gain from better budget communication.  Research in Lagos has demonstrated that a large proportion of the public is unaware of the amount of money that the government spends on services, and of the proportion of resources that go into paying staff costs and maintaining important public goods such as hospitals.
This is significant because citizens tend to give the government lower approval ratings, and to be less willing to pay tax, than those who have a high level of political knowledge.
The importance of flexibility
Counties should adopt these four avenue of communication, but there is no one-size-fits-all model.  The communication landscape in every county is different, which requires a carefully tailored approach.  Given this, the strategies of communication that have been described are best thought of as an overarching framework.  The precise combination of strategies that will work best in a particular county will depend on whether it is urban or rural, has a strong social media presence, enjoys high literacy levels, and so on.
What matters is not that each county follows exactly the same plan, but that each county takes communication seriously, and applies the core principles of communication as best as they can.

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