Good Policies, Derailed by Poor Communication. How to implement complex policies successfully?

Why are Kazakhstan’s many good policies that favour the people like Pension Reform, Registration of Citizens, and Land Reform not known, not appreciated, not understood by the people? Why are there so much unhappiness and antagonism even before the policies are implemented? Why are policies articulated grandiosely but not implemented effectively? Why is it not surprising to find many information campaigns failing to reach out and make an impact on society? How can one successfully promote the polices and services to the citizens and interest groups? How can one ensure a better communication reach?

The key point is that there should be a sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its public. The right answers on how to design a successful information effort to promote a product or politician or a policy are more likely to come when the right questions are asked. Policy makers tend to ask too few questions. Very often management want a bottom-line "this or that, yes or no" answer, while the answer really is "it all depends".

The fundamental assumption is that complexity is built into the policy execution: Negative demand, highly sensitive, invisible benefits, intangibles solutions that are difficult to portray, culture conflict, public scrutiny, and multiple publics are examples. And social marketers are guided by behavioural studies. A leader in the use of behavioural science for the marketing of products is Ernest Dichter, a Viennese psychologist and an acolyte of Sigmund Freud. In his book The Strategy of Desire, Dr Dichter observed that marketplace decisions are driven by emotions, subconscious whims, and fears with very little to do with the product itself (in this case public policies). He founded the concept of the gestalt or personality of the soap that conjured hope and desires of personal indulgence and romantic dates rather than the soap itself as a bathing item. Other writers are Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions; Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow; and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness); these behavioural science approaches have been applied to policy planning.

In 1951, G D Wiebe writing on social advertising asked the question whether we can sell brotherhood like we sell soap. More than five decades later, Robert Hornik asked the question “Why Can’t we Sell Human Rights like we Sell Soap?” (Robert C Hornik, Why Can’t we Sell Human Rights like we Sell Soap? In Rice and Atkins Public Communications Campaigns, Fourth Edition, SAGE Publications, 2013). His aim was to apply the field of communication for social and behavioural change to human right issues.

Given this behavioural perspective, here is a set of guidelines to note for successful policy communication: Write clear policy objectives, understand prior attitudes, pursue innovative approach, use more interpersonal communication channels; and pursue social marketing strategies.

Clear Policy Objectives

Clear written objectives will help in message design and in audience analysis. Objectives should be measurable and therefore must be at best middle range in terms of time, and specific in terms of target groups. In Kazakhstan, policy objectives are poorly written out, poorly conceived and consequently poorly executed. For instance, on land reform, it was not the government’s intention to allow foreign ownership of the land, but to extend the current limit of renting agricultural land to help encourage investment and innovation. However, without clear written communication objectives, it was hijacked by various and vested interest parties, and became a contentious issue.

Understand Prior Attitudes

Consider prior attitudes when designing messages. People select information according to their tastes and bias. People will interpret the information in different ways according to their prior attitudes. For the land reform, farmers and even some officials feared that foreign investors, particularly Chinese, would benefit from Kazakhstan’s land resources. Another prior attitude especially among older Kazakhs is that capitalist interdependence is associated with the elites getting rich and the poorest parts of the population growing increasingly disenfranchised. On the pension reform, the prior attitudes included concerns that nationalisation of pension funds would result in the violation of the rights of depositors, ineffective management of private pension assets, and fear that the nationalization of pension funds raised the risk that the fund’s investment strategy would be decided by political priorities. It essentially showed a ‘mistrust in government’ prior attitude.

Innovative Approach

Keep to the policy objectives but try to be innovative. The following questions on creativity should be examined: Distinctiveness: Will it generate "not another campaign" attitude or will it create a sense of salience and importance of the message. Does the message resonate? Endurance: Do the key concepts stay in the mind of the audience, even after the communication effort? Innovative approaches are premised on understanding the wider national interests and address these interconnected wider interests. In Kazakhstan there is often a lack of input from engaged and involved groups like civic societies. The pension reform planners should have had regular policy dialogue with various stakeholders, especially women’s groups. It would have yielded more creative approaches. For instance, the introduction of changes to women’s retirement age should have been accompanied by comprehensive reforms of Kazakhstan’s economy, labour market and healthcare system, as well as better access to childcare facilities for families with young children.

Marketing Mix/Interpersonal channels

Marketing mix and strong interpersonal channels should have been used when passing the Law "On Amendments and Additions to Certain Legislative Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Countering Extremism and Terrorism" in December 2016. The new rules for citizens registration caused public outcry in the social media. The public criticism was escalated following two deaths of people staying in the long queues. Here was a law that should not have been met with resistance if they had used opinion leaders, example village heads, as they will know who is moving, and why, and better able to help explain the registration purposes. They can convince the immigrants that the registration is related to determine the potential for development of each locality in terms of state and regional development programmes. In a Kazakh community, informal leadership structures support interpersonal communication as part of the marketing mix.

Apply marketing strategies

Social marketing is the application of commercial marketing designed to influence the voluntary behaviour of target audiences in order to improve their personal welfare and that of their society. Social marketing approach is with a marketing mindset. It means government departments should plan their communication strategies with target publics, customers or citizens as main focus in policy planning and not the other way around.

In summary, policies are implemented without much deep thought but just to satisfy a top down demand. It is a challenge faced by all Central Asian governments:

- Rigid regimes;

- limited voice of media;

- underdeveloped civil society;

- lack of public participation in decision making processes.

Planners do not think holistically; all policies are planned and executed in silos or in isolation. Land Reform should be articulated in the context of an umbrella national goal of an agrarian reform involving farmers, on the job training for young rural entrepreneurs, and understanding prior attitudes. Pension Reforms did not take into consideration the status and standing of women and a prior understanding of the plight of women which could have been easily obtained through public consultation strategies. The registration of residents should have been framed as benefits-in-kind from their place of residences; it was done so as an afterthought and only after much protests.

Basskaran Nair, Visiting Professor at Nazarbayev University, Graduate School of Public Policy

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