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The prime communicator in chief

Sep 19,2018 - Last updated at Sep 19,2018

Very few leaders seem to understand that a high percentage of their job is to communicate. In the US, they say that the president has access to bully pulpit. While decisions are made rationally and after scientific research and weighing all logical options, enforcing a decision and winning the trust of the people to support it require new skills that many leaders do not possess. While some leaders can be taught how to communicate, successful communicating leaders are born with that skill, even if they do not necessarily show it.

The performance of the current Jordanian prime minister is a case in point. Premiere Omar Razzaz took on a job that was not easy. He was ushered into the prime ministry as a result of public discontent with an unpopular income tax law. He soon realised that even after tweaking it and making some important changes, a revised version of that law was necessary. The key, of course, is to get credit at low interest rather than at high interest and to convince the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international donor agencies that Jordan is taking sound economic decisions. Among such decisions is widening the base of taxpayers and increasing the amount of taxes collected.

Razzaz, a Harvard graduate and a former IMF official, knew that the current system is warped. With indirect taxes being so high and constituting a major percentage of the revenue of the Kingdom, it was unfair for the poor to keep such a system of high sales taxes and other fees, while relatively small revenue is coming from an income tax law that does not yet have the constitutional mandate of taxing the rich more than the poor.

But understanding the system and the challenges and making gradual changes in this direction are not enough to convince a Jordanian public that has for years lost their faith in their own government. The problem, as Razzaz’s youngest minister Muthana Gharaibeh puts it, is that what the government needs most is time. But time is not available to a Cabinet that must pass an income tax law, even a slightly adjusted one, in order to get the needed credit at affordable rates.

After the government tweaked the old income tax law and published it, online seeking 10 days of comments, it embarked on the most aggressive public campaign any government has embarked on. Every minister and official was tasked with meetings, visits, media availability and the like.

The prime minister launched the campaign with a speech at Jordan University’s Strategic Studies Centre. I personally watched how Razzaz answered all the questions from the audience and then after the speech Razzaz spent no less than an hour talking to people and allowing every single person to make his pitch and comment. He listened with seriousness, and when he was unable to answer he  passed on questions to his Cabinet members that were flanking him.

Cabinet members were dispatched to meet with people in the governorates and when they were booed and kicked out, Razzaz did not attack the public but argued that we need to learn the lessons from why people acted in such a way.

At the invitation of a common friend, Saed Karajah, Razzaz agreed to meet with young leaders of the hirak (movement) that was behind the fourth circle’s demonstrations that brought down Hani Mulki’s government. Reports from the meeting, which participants posted online, suggest that Razzaz spent most of the time listening and spoke at a lesser degree.

Part of the success of a communicator is the need to build trust with the audience and that requires unique skills. Being communicator in chief obviously requires a high degree of patience to listen often to people making illogical arguments.

Razzaz seems to understand that he is dealing with decades-old problems that have caused relations between the public and their government to become bitter. Since Jordan does not have a constitutional monarchy and political parties are not able to produce winning electoral strategies, the onus of the problem has fallen on governments. When performing badly and failing the communications test, the public has become skeptical even of the sincerest prime minister. 

This is why Razzaz appeared to take the side of the people when his own ministers were kicked out of some public meetings arranged in Maan and Zarqa that were aimed at explaining the draft law. His reaction reflects an understanding and empathy that has rarely been seen from Jordan’s prime ministers. 

Early signs of this kind of empathy appeared during the parliamentary confidence voting session. When an unemployed citizen jumped from the balcony, Razzaz left the esteemed meeting of parliamentarians and as cameras followed him took the disgruntled citizen and met one-on-one with him and took notes as the man spoke of his personal situation. It was leadership that understands the meaning of communication.

Naturally, communication alone is not enough. A good communicator needs to understand that his standing and ability to influence cannot survive on charm or on debating skills. People need to see and feel results. But while results in the current situation require time, the job of a communicator in chief is to keep the lid down and buy enough time for improvements to kick in.

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