14 February 2013

Namibia: The Power of Public Perception


"CRY my Beloved Country," is the phrase that keeps ringing in my mind as I think about the passing away of Dr Abraham Iyambo, arguably Namibia's most competent technocrat.

In the wake of this national setback, I mourn the fact that so much of our hope to change the destiny of the nation is predominantly entrusted in the hands of the executive branch of the state. It is sad, but true that when most people think of what and/or who the government is, they tend to think of the executive i.e. the ministers and cabinet. In our minds, government is not the people, and it is this perception that I want to discuss.

Let us think about this analogy. If we have to view our country as a vessel, ship or a boat, and our mission is to actualize our goals by steering the ship to 'destination developed country', then it is vital to recognize that every vessel has a captain and an entire crew. For the vessel to fully function, the captain with the ability to oversee the process must ensure that every crew member diligently conducts their duties and responsibilities.

It is not merely up to the captain to carry out every function on the vessel for it to work, and if the captain is obliged or expected to carry out all the tasks then the ship is most likely to sink. Public perception is a powerful instrument. When the public solely places responsibility on the captain, meaning if the vessel doesn't make it, the captain is held solely accountable. This means that a crew member who knows that he won't be held accountable by the public if the ship sinks will not necessarily guarantee that the ship operates to its maximum at all times.

In this instance, public perception creates room for crew members to act and be incompetent, because failure will be attributed to the captain. However, if we expand public perception to hold both the captain and the crew directly accountable for their respective tasks, then everybody on the boat is most likely to act in the best interest of the vessel, by making sure that the vessel arrives at its intended destination in an efficient and effective manner. Our purpose as the public is to make sure that the people we elect and appoint introduce policies and implement strategies that improve the livelihood of our people.

Many times, the public only holds the executive responsible and in terms of accountability, the people installed or appointed to implement the directives from the executive do not feel entirely responsible, because the public does not hold them accountable. I am not saying that we should think in a binary way and shift the blame to the civil servants, but the public approach needs to limit the dependency syndrome that expects the executive to be solely responsible for the country's well being.

It is when we as the public increase the number of people who we hold accountable, that those responsible for the vessel will make sure it functions fully and as it should. The question now is: how do we expand public perception to know who to hold accountable?

Since, the media plays the largest role in shaping public perception, its role in this regard is vital. In my opinion, the lens of the Namibian media largely focuses on the captain, therefore it is not surprising that the public follows suit. For the most part, the media does not play a true investigative role in getting down to the issue, and the stories are not in-depth, therefore in most cases reporters end their stories with "by the time of going to print the respective person did not reply."

It is the prerogative of the media like any other institution to deploy a culture of excellence, where stories are written to depict the true nature of the person or institution responsible for a lack of progress in the public sector. It is important to learn to place equal focus on all parts of government - the people, rather than overemphasize the dependence that we as a society have on the executive.

Simultaneously, the executive needs to make sure that they choose crew members who can allow the vessel to function optimally. Additionally, civil servants need to become more loyal to the state than they are to their colleagues, and need to protect the interest of the state and its citizens.

In instances, where colleagues have information about how civil servants did a disservice to the nation, let us inform the public through the media. Public perception is paramount to bringing about positive changes, and that is why it is important to know how best to use the power we possess.

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