Uganda is lauded for having some of the best policies on paper, but whose implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Factors including inadequate financing, human resources, poor attitudes, lack of political will and support, limited skills among others, have been advanced to explain the poor implementation of these beautifully written policies.
Despite the validity of the above factors, the major limitation to effective policy and programme implementation in Uganda is none other than limited citizen/stakeholder engagement. Policies and programme interventions are meant to improve the way goods and services are delivered and consumed by people. As such, the intended beneficiaries or consumers of any policy or programme ought to be prioritised and engaged before, during and after initiation of any intervention.
Unfortunately, citizen engagement in the processes of developing, implementing, let alone evaluating the effects and impacts of policy and programme interventions seems secondary or not a priority for many institutions both in government and private sector.
Taking the example of the trending public discourse on the transition from the current passports to the electronic international East African passports, many Ugandans, including the legislators, still have unanswered questions. These include; whose idea was it? Why now? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this transition? What happens to those who have just recently renewed or acquired new passports? What is the fate of those are still struggling with the acquisition of the national identity cards? How will this new intervention affect those in the diaspora? Additionally, what are the cost and legal implications of the transition? And, is there a legal framework to guide the process?
The Ministry of Internal Affairs will argue that the e-passport initiative is in the best interest of the people and, therefore, they should embrace it. They will also correctly argue that they engaged most Ugandans via social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp, and later the print and television. This is one level of citizen engagement known as public communication, which is about disseminating information to the public.
However, considering the need to address the many unanswered concerns, the ministry needs to go beyond provision of information to the public. It should engage in both public consultation and participation. Through public consultation, the ministry will seek the input of the public over the proposed e-passport transition using methods such as consultative meetings, opinion polls, rallies among others. Once acquired, the ministry will then have to engage in dialogue with the public to ensure that the collected input facilitates making of informed decisions. This is known as public participation and can be achieved through avenues such as citizen dialogues, deliberative polls, citizens panels or juries among others.
The case of the e-passport is just one of the examples in which both government and private sector institutions glaringly become the oblivious to the critical element of adequate citizen engagement before, during and after implementation of policies and programmes.
If citizens are expected to buy-in and support any policy or programme intervention, they ought to be engaged in the conceptualisation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation processes. This is also known as co-production or co-creation of policies and programmes. To assume that technocrats alone can plan and execute the above processes through provision of information to the public alone, will deliver nothing but wonderfully written policy and programme documents that are never fully implemented, appreciated or taken up by the intended beneficiaries.
To reap the benefits of adequate citizen engagement in policy and programme development, implementation and evaluation, government and private institutions should go beyond public communication and engage in public consultation as well as public participation. Not only do these citizen engagement strategies help the public feel valued, but they enhance their buy-in and support for the policies or programme interventions, which in turn increases their legitimacy. Furthermore, engaging the public facilitates answering the key question addressed by most successful policy or programme implementation efforts- what is in it for the stakeholders?
Failure to embrace systematic approaches and strategies to citizen engagement will continue to promote the existence of beautiful but unimplemented policies as well as a flourishing trade by middlemen and fraudsters that are already reaping big from the prevailing information asymmetry.
The writer is a health information scientist