by Mohamed Keynan
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
In these tumultuous times, all societies face “sticky” public policy issues that are as complex as the time we live in. Like many others, Somalia faces numerous problems – social, economic, political, technological, and environmental. But unlike most, Somalia lacks the institutional structures, let alone, the capacities to deal with these complications. Yet to solve any of these complex problems, Somalis we would have to devise equally complex strategies, because the old ways simply won’t do. Some have been trying very hard without much success.
Just as great businesses stay “close” to their customers and respond as quickly to customer needs, good public policy agenda or program requires staying “close” to what key stakeholder groups want. A business is likely to fail when there is a poor fit between it’s services and customer needs. The same holds true when there is a poor fit between what citizens or key stakeholder groups want and a proposed public policy agenda or a program. Defining and identifying who “key stakeholder” groups are is not always easy and it can be fraud with misunderstanding. Generally speaking, anyone who is either affected or can affect an organization’s mission is a stakeholder. So, with enough imagination and tools, we can in many cases, list key stakeholder groups with some confidence and accuracy. Sadly, all stakeholders are not created equal. Thus, we must deal with issues of power as well as moral, legal and ethical questions. The good news is that we have an in-depth knowledge of who the key stakeholder groups are in Somalia. Harder even though, is identifying and assembling a set of “winnable” public policy issues that are worth pursuing, and in which key stakeholder groups can support. Nonetheless, if we are to resolve major public policy questions effectively, we must identify not only key stakeholder groups reasonably well, but we must also know criteria key stakeholder groups use for judging success, in their own subjective ways.
As any public policy student will tell you, unless key stakeholder groups are satisfied, at least minimally, and unless they are satisfied based on their own criteria and definitions of what are important and valuable to them, public policy agendas or programs will sooner or later fail. This is especially true when power is dispersed, as is the case in Somalia now.
Because failure is the norm when key stakeholder groups are dissatisfied, knowing and attending to key stakeholder needs cannot be stressed enough. Barbara Tuchman (1984) in her sobering history The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam narrates a series of disastrous events that followed in the footsteps of decisions that ignored the interests or information held by key stakeholder groups, in what she called “folly.” Consequently, she notes the main reasons that people typically ignore stakeholder interests to their demise: “Three outstanding attitudes – obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, and the illusion of invulnerable status – are persistent aspects of folly.”
Recent Istanbul Conference as Illustrative
For illustrative purposes only, let me use the Somali civil society gatherings in the just concluded Istanbul Conference in Turkey on May 26-30, 2012. More than 300 Somalis from very diverse backgrounds convened in the Istanbul conference to exchange ideas on what to do about the situation in Somalia. Unfortunately, given the fractious nature of our society and politics, voices were raised long before a soul set foot in Turkey. Still, I argue that the Somali civil society group met at Istanbul, oblivious to the growing disaffection of various stakeholder constituents before or after the gathering. As can be hard at a BBC debate following the event, individuals against the conference and even “surrogates” from various groups voiced serious dissatisfaction with the civil society conference, let alone the outcome. As a quick reminder, here is a partial list of those who were either strongly against the conference or had strong reservation about the conference: the regional authority IGAD, SRSG, the TFG and the Speaker of the Parliament, Puntland and Galmugug states. Now, did someone really believe that the civil society group could have produced an alternative public policy document or could have even contributed effectively, regardless of what views these key stakeholder groups held? Many of the organizers must have, since in a wholesome act of obliviousness or self-aggrandizement or both, supporters and organizers of the civil society groups mounted strong defense for what they have done and accomplished, but nothing more. Amazingly, Somali civil society group and supporters claimed that they were “surprised” and “puzzled” and some even “shocked” about some of the negative views various anti-conference groups held.
Clearly, these folks have not given much thought to key stakeholder needs and demands, much less their values or the criteria these key stakeholders were using to determine the success of the conference. Sadly, organizers and supporters of the civil society groups seem to have learned little from this experience.
More to the point, key stakeholder analysis and understanding is NOT about niceness, fairness or even about ethical, moral, legal or inclusiveness –of course, all of these are good things to consider – understanding key stakeholders, attending to their needs and accommodating their demands are simply about how to be effective. As basic as this might sound, organizations and groups are formed or come together for a reason, something needs to be accomplished, formally a mission. A basic question then is: what was the mission of the civil society group in Istanbul Conference? How was this drafted? How much was accomplished? What about the future?
It should not be news to anyone that we live in a highly interconnected world; basically your issues are my issues. Any societal issue worthy of any sort of consideration involves a subjective value judgment to define “what? “a problem(s) is (are), and if something is to be done, “how?” to go about it, “who?” will do it and about “how?” to manage potential losers and winners in increasingly fractious and zero-sum or winner gets-all societies. One has to be really ill-informed not to see how “political” these subjective decisions about any of these questions are likely to be. I use the word “subjective” deliberately here, because even when we are dealing with empirically verifiable inquiries (which we are not in this case), people issues are always high on subjective judgments and are value-laden. So, if the Somali civil society group that met wanted to contribute solving our social problems, they’d have done much better involving key stakeholders than without them.
Stated differently, adequately addressing public policy problems requires building a winning and sustainable coalition. The easiest way to build a coalition large enough to win and sustain a victory is to tackle areas of unique concerns not just to one group but many. This in turn, requires engaging a focused analysis, combining a pragmatic political agenda and carefully finding a fit that hones in on issues, not personalities. One way to lessen “personality driven contests” is to strategically communicate with key stakeholder groups early and often. Sometimes all that is really required is to say “we understand where you stand on this issue, we value your concerns and we promise to involve you on our deliberations.” Other times, more is required. Either way, the need to identify key stakeholder groups and the need to accommodate and understand their success criteria rises exponentially as the public policy issue gets harder. Equally important, it requires understanding politics (in the best sense of the word) is how humans solve their problems – and dealing with it! Successful people, groups, entities, societies and governments do this all the time. I am fully convinced, any groups in Somalia could be mobilized and attracted to any reasonable positions provided those aspiring individuals in any sector, who want to lead understand what leadership is all about.
No exchange for good leadership
Good leadership, to me at least, is not about prestige, power or status. It is also not about assembling highly skilled people or great resources or even having great plans or strategies. Leadership is really about personal responsibility and personal commitment. Public leadership in particular, is about or it must be about a commitment to a community agenda – it’s also about having the right people and the right mindset. In our case, the key is getting together people who will embrace fully the new reality of Somalia’s diverse “interest groups.” My sincere belief is that overlooking one tribal group or interest group or key stakeholders altogether or making a symbolic gesture will never again work in Somalia. There is nothing especial about Somalia on this issue. In a mature democratic society, like United States, it is no longer attainable for the majority groups to overlook the interest of minority groups, even when it is practically doable. It is not a question of doing what is right or wrong, thoughtful people seem to have realized what is not sustainable is not worth pursuing – because today’s world is a “shared-power” world
Also, I believe that one can appeal to the continued loyalty of their tribal or own interest groups and still work within the flourishing power of emerging interest groups. In fact, there is no other alternative. Again, applicable example from the United States is appropriate. This is probably a stretch but perhaps still a good lesson. When President Obama was running for a president in 2008, he put together a winning coalition from various “interest groups.” If he loses his re-election bid this year, which is very likely, it would mostly likely be because he lost touch with the interest of some of his key stakeholders – or his base if you will.
Now, let’s be clear. There is no denying that Somalia has complex social problems, in which people with various and contradicting needs are struggling with seemingly intractable problems. But who doesn’t? When individuals and groups with low trust find themselves working in very complex, insecure and unpredictable situations, mistrust is the rule. The result is usually bad, as Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal explain in Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (2008): “Complexity, unpredictability, and deception generate rampant ambiguity, a dense fog that shrouds what happens from day to day.”
In the “dense fog” of Somali politics, it is indeed impossible to know what happens from day to day. But one thing remains crystal clear. We cannot afford to be lazy. We can assemble people with high academic degrees and skills, raise all kinds of resources, develop great plans and equally great strategies to implement them all – but all of this will amount to nothing without the "right people" - that is, people with basic decency and character, people who have trust and faith with each other and with others - and their own people's ability to free themselves and join the rest of humanity with dignity. I must submit “trust and faith” are such tricky issues, but we must appreciate, accommodate and deal with key stakeholder issues directly and often, and particularly the needs of those who can negatively affect us all. There is no use to complaining about the evils of others. More specifically, Somali civil society groups cannot expect others to see an inherent goodness in them just because they have “civil” before “society”. No inherently good “society” exists - and we know that some society groups are to be fully encouraged, some to be discouraged and others to be avoided. Somali civil society groups have not yet proved themselves as leaders and must not allow obliviousness, self-aggrandizement or illusion to blind them. Instead, we must identify and understand key stakeholder needs, strategically accommodate their demands, face realities, and still retain faith with each other and with those who are struggling with us.
Mohamed Keynan is a Public Policy Analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org