Author: BBC Media Action Insight's George Ferguson on March 17 2017 - A free and independent media that holds politicians to account on behalf of citizens has long been held up as a cornerstone of a thriving democracy.

In Sierra Leone, we ran a radio debate show called Tok Bot Salone (Talk about Sierra Leone) (TBS) that tried to do just that. On air for over four years, TBS followed a classic ‘question and answer’ (Q&A) format and gave ordinary people a platform to quiz their leaders. The underlying idea was that citizens would take the opportunity to demand greater accountability from government, resulting in better service delivery.

TBS achieved a great deal. The show had an audience of over a million people and those who regularly listened to it were three times more likely to get involved in politics than those who never tuned in.

Yet despite its successes, the TBS model of confronting leaders and demanding responses might not be the best way of fostering citizen-state accountability in Sierra Leone. Argument often turns to frustration while conversation – if inclusive, nuanced, constructive – can breed a deeper sense of satisfaction, of progress.   

Unwilling politicians, uncomfortable audiences

The biggest challenge faced by the TBS producers was that most senior government figures consistently refused to appear on the show. We often had to explain to our audiences that a chair was empty because a politician had failed to honour our invitation. It seems that leaders feel little obligation to make media appearances that will require them to answer difficult questions.

And even if an official does turn up, there’s no guarantee it’ll go well. During one of our other radio discussion shows, a Bank of Sierra Leone representative got up and walked straight out of the studio as soon as he realised that another panellist was a previous governor of the Bank.

Even when panellists stay for the whole show, both they and the audience aren’t particularly comfortable with the Q&A format. Many Sierra Leoneans think questioning, especially of ‘big people’, is just plain rude.

Instead, the audience are often more interested in making statements than enquiries. Sharing information appears to be a better starting point for solving persistent, local problems. Audiences seem to find that leading with their own personal experiences and opinions sparks the types of productive and honest conversations with leaders, which leave them more satisfied that issues will actually be addressed.

An ideal political discussion? Frank and fruitful

This all brings us to consider the sorts of issues that audiences most want addressed. According to a survey we conducted in 2015, the top priority for 75% of Sierra Leoneans is service delivery. People want the media to cover the local issues that affect them directly, rather than issues like national environmental policy or high-level corruption, which don’t feel as relevant to their lives.

For example, one TBS episode was recorded in an area affected by a large mining operation. A local chief in the audience stood up and spoke about the problems faced by local communities. Notably, he spoke in Temne, a local language, instead of Krio, the national lingua franca normally used on the show. As Temne is the first language of the communities most affected by the issues, his words carried added authority, and helped his comments strike a chord with both the live audience and those listening at home. Swayed by the chief’s words, the mining company’s representative on the panel pledged to do more to help those affected by the company’s operations.   

Another TBS episode, taped in Kono district during the 2012 local elections, helped resolve tensions between the two main parties following an incident of political violence. Both parties committed publicly to participating peacefully and issued warnings that supporters who acted otherwise would be expelled. There were no other outbreaks of violence for the rest of the election period and our hope is that the show helped contribute to this.

In recognition of the importance that audiences place on improving local service delivery, we've been supporting local radio stations to develop and produce their own local debate shows that are more responsive to the specific needs of their district.

A more solutions-focused approach?

To figure out how to best improve accountability in Sierra Leone, it might be useful to break the concept into two different types: ‘answerability’ and ‘responsiveness’. Answerability requires decision-makers to explain their actions to the public. Responsiveness is more about behaviour – the extent to which public institutions and leaders take notice of citizens’ needs and try to meet them.

Q&A programmes typically aim to achieve answerability. But Sierra Leonean audiences are unlikely to ask the tough questions needed to achieve this goal. Even if they did, their leaders don’t typically have the skills and confidence to answer them well.

Responsiveness, on the other hand, aligns more closely with Sierra Leonean culture. Having two-way conversations, rallying around a shared goal, recognising problems for what they are, giving leaders space to move beyond a problem towards solutions that everyone can get behind. These things all come far more naturally to Sierra Leoneans; they also seem to value them more.

Through providing platforms for shared problem-solving, the media could prove even more successful at engaging audiences and improving accountability. The recipe for success will likely be holding conversations that lead to practical improvements to services, which people will notice in their everyday lives.  

This approach has parallels with ‘solutions-focused journalism’, which is about reporting on ways of improving the future, in addition to examining the problems of the present.

We’re currently applying these ideas to our new national radio show Wi Di Pipul (We the people), which aims to build a more meaningful and honest dialogue between decision-makers and ordinary people. A recent episode on the national school feeding programme looked at why the scheme works better in certain areas than others. The episode featured a government official promising to apply lessons from the most successful areas elsewhere.

The lessons we learned from broadcasting TBS have proved invaluable in adapting our programmes to more closely matche the public’s interests and behaviour. With Wi Di Pipul, we will continue to involve Sierra Leone’s leaders and audiences in meaningful and honest conversations, to further enhance accountability in the country.

George Ferguson has been the Country Director for BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone since 2010. George previously worked for Village Aid, a small UK NGO specialising in non-formal learning and empowerment approaches. George has also completed 2 years as a VSO volunteer in the Niger Delta and previously spent 2 years working with Accenture. 

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