Kwame Owino is the Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs – Kenya (IEA Kenya). I recently spoke with Kwame to discuss his motivation for writing a weekly blog column in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest circulation paper.
What do you blog about and how often?
I write about topical issues in the four policy areas that the IEA-Kenya carries out research. In general these are international trade, economic regulation, budget policy and decentralization and constitutional implementation in Kenya. I write the blog post on a weekly basis and have a suggested word limit of 600-800 words. My strengths are in regulatory policy and public expenditure in Kenya and so most of the posts involve spending on education, employment and telecommunications policy in Kenya.
Why do you blog and what value-add has this column provided you and IEA Kenya?
To my mind, the opportunity to post regular pieces helps refine my writing and give me immediate feedback from an audience that may be interested in public affairs. Both IEA Kenya and I realized that many of the regular readers would refer to our website to get more information after reading a piece in which they have an interest. Our surveys further revealed that the blog directs traffic back to the IEA-Kenya site. In addition, a blog post in a major paper allows for feedback and responses which helps us to gauge the level of public interest in a given policy area. This feedback can be used to inform additional research or to inform further communication with those audience groups. Given that this is a weekly column, I have found that sometimes it is useful to simply provide corrections to popular policy choices which are inefficient, not cost effective or poorly designed. In short, my most successful blog posts have been about presenting counterfactuals and providing facts that push back against poor policy.
We use open source tools provided by Google to find out what are the visits to the IEA-Kenya website and are able to trace where the traffic came from. From this we have determined that an increasing number of our visits come from the blog posts. So it’s not from user surveys per se.
How do you produce your blogs and what tips or guidelines can you give?
I try to jot down a couple of ideas in advance and then sit down the day before the piece is due to write about it. I usually ensure that I include at least one data reference and therefore check this in advance. Once I have that in, then I usually take an hour aside and make sure that I have the piece done at one go. I will then spend half an hour revising it for clarity and will then send submit. I also try not to revise too many times or to write about the same subject more than once. My guidelines are therefore to write in a conversational manner, include at least a one data reference, avoid creating too many external links and revise only once.
I think that it is useful to read the responses from readers because this is one of the truly good attributes of blog posts as opposed to conventional opinion articles. In many cases, I get the feedback that shows me that my writing was unclear or the demand for additional data sources. At the same time, the feedback and the quality of responses gives me a rough guide of the quality of the audience. In my assessment, many of the people who read policy blogs are a very high caliber audience.
What was the process behind getting your blog column in the Nation?
I am not sure about how this decision was made on the part of the Nation Media Group. Prior to the formal approach, I wrote a blog post for the IEA-Kenya website on a fortnight and on occasion, the press in Kenya would quote passages with minimum attribution. So writing a blog post was a good compromise for both IEA-Kenya and the media house.
Do you have some advice to other think tank leaders?
I would certainly recommend blogging to leaders of think tanks and especially on the African continent. Its an opportunity to get an increasingly educated population to participate in policy discourse. I stress this because think tanks may have different ways of influencing policy but public education should be an area of interest as a public good. Each think tank leader must choose subjects, medium or regularity of blogging but on the whole, the feedback and practice in communicating with a lay audience is something that African Think Tanks should start doing.
This post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However, these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec
Image courtesy of http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-24772232.