Lessons in/from public sector communications (1):

Tolu Ogunlesi
4 min readJun 15, 2020

On account of my job, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how governments (in Nigeria and elsewhere) communicate and how they should ideally be communicating.

I’ll share a couple of lessons I’ve picked up in the last four and half years. This is the start of a series sharing those thoughts, insights and lessons.

Let’s dive straight into it.

I’ve learnt this from Mr. Babatunde Fashola (BRF), Minister of Works and Housing: breaking down the impact of government policy-making and project-implementation, using numbers. BRF will tell you how many trucks of laterite or sand a particular road project has consumed, and also tell you how much each truck costs, and how that money is divided among the various stakeholders.

I was listening to him recently on an Instagram Live Chat, and was inspired to jot down the phrase “multidimensionality of government interventions.”

My notes from the IG Live. See if you can spot the “multidimensionality of govt interventions”

This because of the way he conveyed/conveys the fullness of the impact of infrastructure projects — beyond the fact of a new road or bridge, the jobs that are created: the monies earned by suppliers, artisans, labourers, engineers, surveyors, etc; the associated economies that spring up, like food vendors; the rise in property values that accompany completed infrastructure; even the improvement in what he calls “journey time.”

BRF is a genius at breaking it down, laying it all out. When he goes on project tours, he stops to ask the artisans and food vendors on the site about how the project has touched or is touching their lives.

And that’s what government communications should really be focusing on: telling and showing the actual impact / outcomes. Not just the contract sum (input) — which is what tends to make the headlines, the media love these numbers — but also the “stimulus” effect on ordinary people and communities and neighbourhoods.

Which brings me to a point that I’ll discuss another day — how Nigerian governments generally tend to do poorly in terms of translating “spending” into “jobs” in a credible, believable manner. What I call, “showing the workings.” That’s for another day.

Back to BRF. He’s also very good at crafting phrases that outline exactly how he wants his efforts to be measured. “Journey times” (touched on it earlier) is a favorite of BRF, as a measure of incremental progress in road infrastructure. It’s not enough to talk about how many kilometres of road have been fixed, it’s vitally important to emphasize the changes — if any — in how long people are spending on the road. (Let me acknowledge that this is not always readily realisable, considering that road works are often disruptive in themselves, and sometimes/often make journey times worse before they make them better).

In the first term, when the power sector was under his watch, he spoke repeatedly of “Incremental Power” — modest increments to power generation and distribution. Now you might question the idea of incremental power in a country that requires a “surge” (and has required consistent surges for decades now), but it at least goes some way in helping to manage expectations in a sector that requires copious amounts of expectation management.

BRF used to emphasize the point about how the Ministry of Power is not what it used to be in its pre-privatisation phase, i.e. pre-2013. It is no longer the all-powerful entity that oversaw and regulated every aspect of generation, transmission and distribution; since 2013 it’s become largely a policy-setting and oversight body.

The Generation and Distribution Companies are now majority-privately-owned (the public sector ownership is held by the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, which is in the Presidency), and only transmission remains in government hands, as the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN). TCN and the Industry Regulator, NERC, are both under the oversight of the Ministry of Power, but they’re largely independent bodies, with limited Ministerial control.

Realising the limitations of the Ministry — policy direction mainly, and oversight of implementing agencies — BRF constantly spoke about “Incremental Power” — which he would define to mean modest-but-steady increases in generation, transmission and distribution capacity.

It was also an apt way to capture a scenario in which the improvement in power supply would happen on the basis of discrete — a market here, a University campus there, a residential estate there — which is what has been playing out successfully with the Federal Government’s ‘Willing Buyer Willing Seller’ Scheme and its various solar off-grid initiatives, ‘Energizing Education’ and ‘Energizing Economies.’

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See examples of the manifestations of ‘Incremental Power’ below:

Magodo residents enjoy 24/7 electricity after signing premium power deal with Ikeja Electric: here

Ikeja Electric, GRA Ikeja residents sign contract to deliver 20 hours daily power supply, here

As independent power plant lights up Ariaria market, here

Osinbajo inaugurates 2.8MW solar power plant at FUNAI, here

Africa’s ‘largest off-grid solar hybrid’ goes online at Nigerian University, BUK, here

We Visited the Sura Shopping Complex IPP About One Year After Launch and Here is What We Discovered, here

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Incremental Power.’

Obviously not meant as a substitute for the big transformative surges that Nigeria requires, but it does and should count for something. And deserves acknowledgement and recognition for what it is. That was how BRF chose to frame and define his legacy.

I don’t know how much it caught on with the public, keeping in mind that when it comes to electricity in Nigeria, most people don’t care for any messaging whatsoever, they just want to see constant ‘light’, and readily available metering!

Next in the series will focus on lessons I’ve picked up from the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi.

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Tolu Ogunlesi

Writer/Speechwriter, Former Communications Guy for the Nigerian Government, Journalist on Sabbatical