Last week I had to go and engage our local police force. A routine annual task many of us who live in Africa must perform. We go to lour local CID headquarters to prove that we are not criminals. Or, at least, that no trace of our criminal activities has recently been detected.
The process harks back to Colonial days, when it was impossible for an African to apply successfully for formal employment without a Certificate of Good Conduct. So applicants travelled long distances to reach a central point where they could share their identity details, and then ask the authorities to check the criminal records for any trace of them. Quite how this was done, or how long it took, before the advent of computers I dread to think.
And it’s the process I want to talk about. Because my, how it has changed. Not since 1932, but since last year! The officer in charge of Good Conduct has decided that positive communication with his target audience will improve efficiency. So he has looked at the process and decided what needs to be clarified.
His influence begins at the gate of CID HQ, where smartly uniformed policemen smile, enquire your purpose, and direct you to a parking area. Then you encounter his first investment in signage, which directs you to the pavilion where the Good Conduct process is carried out. On the outside wall of this freshly repaired building is a large shiny sign, of a quality normally associated with upmarket shopping centres. And on that sign, writ large, are the steps of the process to be followed by all applicants.
The benefits of this can easily be imagined by anyone who has ever had to arrive as a supplicant at any bureaucratic office on the Continent. From border post to harbour, from immigration to tax office, the first tactic has always been to deny information. So you arrive, ignorant and anxious. Which means that anyone - from the office cat to the Permanent Secretary - can have his wicked way with you. For as long as he wants; and without fear of interruption.
And in this blind state, the real villains can surround you like the coils of a python, and begin to squeeze.
I speak not of the officials, but of the facilitators. Touts,relatives of officials,former employees. They all have an easy familiarity with the place, and are only too happy to help you. The longer they keep you, and the more serious the perceived obstacles they overcome for you, the higher their eventual demand for recompense.
Well, here at CID HQ, there were no such people. And anyone who was genuinely there to help an applicant (the driver assisting hisIndian mzee for example) got short shrift. They were made to sit in a special area, not permitted to move, and … stared at rather hard.
And so, enlightened by signage, and unencumbered by facilitators we the applicants progressed smoothly from stage to stage. Payment, form filling, photocopying, stapling, fingerprinting. A now logical process, completed within an hour.
As I recall, the first time I applied, I participated in the Great Mystery for more than 6 hours. Twice I nearly lost the will to live. But this time I joined a flow of equally amazed people, shaking their heads in wonder as they left CID HQ in daylight.
Of course, not every behaviour can be influenced by communication. And the public loves the chance to fight back.
But the only rebellion I saw was in response to a notice forbidding applicants to wipe fingerprint ink off their fingers onto the walls. Several had, instead, wiped their hands on the new curtains. Long live the Revolution!
Chris Harrison has 19 years experience in marketing and advertising in Africa. From Nairobi he leads a communications agency network that is active in 19 markets on the Continent.
His writings can also be found on www.chrisharrison.biz and on a variety of marketing sites around the world.