Leadership Credibility

IN 2009, economics Professor, Robin Hanson, wrote an interesting article suggesting that politicians who really wanted to show they would keep their campaign promises should post bonds – like their homes – that would be forfeited if a promise were broken. As far out as Hanson’s suggestion might seem, it underscores one of the most vital aspects of public governance – credibility.   

  In one of the most astounding political documents in human history, The Federalist Papers, James Madison defines the ideal system of public governance as one in which society elects, through democratic means, “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country…” In other words, a democracy is arguably the best model of public governance and the wisdom, competence, and most of all, credibility of elected officials, sustain it. And one of the most effective methods of gauging a person’s credibility is by how much their actions match with their words. 

  It is typical of leaders seeking elective office to make promises, which ideally should reflect their policy leanings and agendas. According to political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, the consensus amongst experts is that campaign promises are a major indicator of what policies a president will enact. But when promises are not aligned with actions and policies, they have adverse consequences. 

  In April 2010, after the first televised General Election debate in the UK, and Nick Clegg, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats gave an impressive performance, his party, briefly overtook the Conservatives and Labour in the opinion polls. Four years later, the Lib Dems had a voter approval of 6 percent and faced imminent defeat at the polls. The reason is attributable to the electorate believing that they did not deliver on their promises when they entered the coalition government. A leader’s word must count. 

  Public governance, at any level, would be a farce in the absence of trust, and leaders earn the trust of the people by ensuring that their words match their actions. The truth is that no politician can fulfill his or her election promises 100 percent, but they must be seen to be accomplishing results and or assiduously working toward accomplishing them. 

  In 1984, the American writer Michael Krukones published Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors, and found that “…about 75 percent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept…” and the main reason some pledges are not redeemed according to Jeff Fishel in his book Presidents and Promises: From Campaign Pledge to Presidential Performance, “is congressional opposition, not presidential flip-flopping.” 

  Now this is an important lesson to keep in mind as we approach the forthcoming elections with huge campaigns and ‘impressive promises’ rending the air across the country. What has defined our experience of public governance for decades has been promise baiting— leaders saying what they think the people want to hear with no concrete plans to make them happen. This disconnect between promises and actualities has been at the heart of the disenchantment we find amongst the electorate every time there is an election. 

  For the majority of Nigerians, politicians cannot be trusted. Period. And their word carries no meaning. This vote of no confidence leads to general mistrust and apathy in the society. 

  The upcoming elections, therefore, are a litmus test and referendum on the credibility of our politicians and those seeking elective office. Times have changed, and the tide is constantly turning. Nigerians are increasingly becoming more politically savvy and engaged like never before, and millions of them are young and armed with new technologies that keep them abreast with current affairs, which enable them participate in getting their views heard. Thus, politicians should not take the electorate for granted. Let us collectively make this a different election. Winning at the polls is very good, but it is not the destination; it is the beginning of the journey. And credibility – your words matching your actions – is the currency en route.

Nigeria Has a Great Future

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