Many years ago, when I was at the centre of private sector advoca- cy for the ICt sector, at the end of a conference attended by the minister responsible I approached him about engaging more closely with him and his
colleagues. the man was unambiguous in his reaction: “Look,” he retorted, “policy is for policy-makers; operators are there to operate.” and that was the end of that initiative – at least at his level for as long as he was the person running the ministry.
so what’s wrong with this division of labour between government and the private sector? after all, what do we mere businesspeople know about even the principles never mind the intrica- cies of how governments formulate and implement policies? to be honest, then
as now, not many private sector folk do know very much about policy. Except they’d like ones that reduce restrictive regulations and lower taxes.
On these and other matters, it’s why we get together and form what are called BMOs – Business Member Organisations. through them we are able to assemble a critical mass of interested and knowledgeable people, plus a professional secretariat, to work out ways of creating a more enabling environment in which to operate. In this country, like in most others, membership in BMOs is voluntary. If we wish to join and pay our subscrip- tion we’re welcome. But if we don’t that’s fine too. so while some compa- nies find it to be a worthwhile invest- ment, by no means all do. the con- sequence is that the funds available for identifying and pursuing relevant
issues are less than they could be, and so BMOs can’t afford to offer the full array of services members would wish to benefit from. some members may become so discouraged that they stop subscribing (even denying the positive impact actually being made by the BMO, and so justifying the holding back). so even fewer services can be delivered. It is such vicious cycles that BMOs risk.
Happily, over the last couple of decades the situation in Kenya has greatly improved. Prior to the turn of the century public-pri- vate engagement was very much a minority sport. “the Big Four” as they were known (the Federation of Kenya Employers, the Kenya association of Manufacturers, the Kenya Bankers’ association and the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry) were the ones who spoke for the private sector, but many sec- tors were barely if at all represented. there was also only limited appetite by by government to listen to the busi- ness community’s needs.
I have written before about the significance of how the PRsP (Poverty Reduction strategy Paper) was prepared just before the turn of the century. For the first time a
national strategic plan was evolved through sector Working groups (sWgs) that brought together rep- resentatives from both the public and private sectors. I was a mem- ber of the sWg on ICt, where we formed one seamless team – irre- spective of whether we represented government or the business world. We were just Kenyans, trying to do the best for Kenya as we came up with the country’s first ever ICt policy.
the PRsP momentum did not fade. On the contrary, it showed that talking together without labels on our foreheads was invaluable, with all involved behaving respectfully and listening openly, each bringing the benefits of our experiences and perspectives. the ICt team (with great leadership from head of gov- ernment It, the late Juma Okech, and under the benign chairman- ship of the then Ps for transport and Communication titus Naikuni)
worked easily on overcoming the challenges and taking advantage of opportunities: it was synergy and strategic thinking come alive.
Over the years private sector engagement with government has become far more inclusive and rep- resentative, not least with the advent of KEPsa, the Kenya Private sector alliance. It will always be more chal- lenging to achieve such engagement among sMEs, never mind in the informal sector generally and among
small-scale farmers in particular, but
certainly the formal sector in Kenya can be proud of how it has organised itself to advocate for its interests with government. Equally, including and not least at the most senior lev- els, government officials have by and large welcomed and responded to the approaches by the private sector.
Public-private engagement When I first became involved with public-private engagement the lack of trust between business and gov
ernment was palpable. We were seen by government as a bunch of greedy characters just interested in maximising short-term profit at the expense of everything else; and we saw government folk as lazy bureaucrats completely indifferent to creating an enabling environment in which businesspeople could thrive and create jobs. Plus, of course, the big elephant in the room was (and still is) corruption.
What changed, and why? as I look back, I see the breakthrough came with the acceptance by both parties that our engagement would only be meaningful if it evolved from the ad hoc to the regular, and if what was agreed at each meeting was followed up and implemented. there was a learning curve for sure, and participants took time to acquire the new disciplined habit, but somehow we have managed to move to a rea- sonably good place.
Of course much will
always depend on the indi- viduals involved. From the private sector side, some BMOs are better organised and better led than others; some have attracted higher numbers of players in their sector as members and subscribers; and some have been more skilled at influencing their gov- ernment counterparts.
a few are still not good enough at appreciating the progress made by government, over-focusing on where the cup is still empty. On the gov- ernment side too there are of course wide variations, with some Css and Pss being more interested than oth- ers.
But speaking of cups full and empty, if we compare the situation today with that twenty or even ten years ago our cup of public-private engagement has been filling up very nicely. Indeed delegations have come from other countries to study how we have worked to create a reasonably harmonious and constructive part- nership between policy-makers and operators.
What remains? First, the kinds of relationships that have been built at the national level need to be deepened in the counties. Not least,
the county chapters of the Chamber must learn how to engage with both the executive and the legislature in ways that have evolved nationally. Various sector BMOs have begun to set up county chapters, and while this is quite ambitious, requiring both human and financial resource, it is good to see the process sprouting green shoots. Dealing with clusters of counties is also important.
We must continue strengthen- ing BMOs that represent sectors with large numbers of widely spread micro-operators.
they are the ones who most need support – but also the ones who often find it hard to be helped. Never mind to be helped to sustainabili- ty and scale. then, I have always worried about membership in BMOs being voluntary. From what I have seen, those who join are by and large the ones who are keen to see a level
We must continue strengthening BMOs that represent sectors with large numbers of widely spread micro-operators.
playing field where the most compe- tent and ethical thrive.
It is from among their members that the leaders of the BMOs emerge, and almost without exception these are good patriotic people, prepared to sacrifice their time (other than in the secretariat positions are volun- tary) for the common good.
If I were a player whose success depended on the playing field not being level the last thing on my mind would be to join a BMO. and yet if we are to be able to encourage self-regulation by BMOs, it is self-de- feating unless everyone must join up. I understand that compulsory BMO membership has not been successful in all the countries where it has been introduced, but my sense is that it would be worth a try here.
For Kenya generally, and not least for businesses within the coun- try, the private sector’s constructive engagement with successive govern- ments on policy formulation and implementation has delivered major dividends.
But beyond that, and here I can speak very personally, those of us who have been involved in such activity have found it extremely rewarding. (OK, at times extremely frustrating too.)
By contributing our time we have learned so much about what works and what doesn’t work and why. We have mixed with the best, the most thoughtful, the most solu- tion-oriented of Kenyans.
and yet only a small minority of those in the private sector are active in their BMOs. they pay their annu- al subscriptions, and they attend various events.
But my concluding thought for those who have managed to stay with me to the end of this article is this: volunteer to join some com- mittee of your BMO, and enjoy the engagement and the learning. and if your company does not belong to a BMO, join one!