Taxation conversation over the airways

Sue Moore ICT4D, Inequality, Tax

Based on conversations with those involved, Sue Moore reflects on a recent programme to encourage discussion on how the government spends taxes in Kenya and improve understanding of tax compliance behaviour.

Tax is a hot topic for Kenyans with many public conversations around how the government raises and spends this revenue. Kenya’s constitution recognises the right to public participation in government decision making, but to what extent is this right being taken up?

Oxfam teamed up with partner Africa’s Voices to use a powerful combination of radio and text messages to reach a wide audience and understand their motivations to pay tax and their perception of the quality of public services received. Radio is a trusted and popular forum, listened to by many communities in local languages and most Kenyans* have access to mobile phones so people can send in their opinions via text messages.

Radio shows were held where discussions were guided by a pre-scripted scenario question, in some cases by a tax expert. Through SMS questions, data was gathered on participants’ tax compliance behaviour and their age, gender and location. The results enabled Africa Voices to derive rich insights into the beliefs of participants among diverse groups. Data analysis tools were selected and created for exploration, while native speakers, who understand the local context, helped to interpret the messages.

Research findings raised issues around how to simplify key messages on tax, promote greater engagement at county government level and encourage greater participation of women. There were strong links drawn to paying tax for moral and civic reasons.

Meeting the challenges

  • Complexity: The shows had to be made relevant to a wide audience in three counties with different contexts and cultural sensitivities. Focus groups were held with youth, taxi drivers and teachers, to test the radio scripts for comprehension. These were then adapted to elicit the same interpretation and understanding from different radio audiences, such as taking into account relevant economic activities in each county.
  • Operational challenges: Radio presenters didn’t always have adequate knowledge on the tax system in Kenya so commercial breaks were used for presenters to discuss particular issues with radio show guests so they could go back to the audience to clarify information.
  • Political risk: Some of the topics were perceived differently in different areas, and sometimes not in a positive light, especially by some Government officials. In particular it was important to explain on air that local governments weren’t being targeted, and that audience responses were confidential.

Design limitations

Some challenges were identified in relation related to the representativeness of the data on in terms of gender and age: it is estimated that 74% of the radio audience were male and most people participating via text were in their 20s.

To complement the findings of the radio shows it’s important to combine different types of methodologies, for instance, to organise focus groups with people who don’t have mobile phones or don’t feel confident enough to participate in the radio show

How to improve gender balance

  • Focus on mobilising through women’s participation, using trusted female presenters and popular radio stations
  • Ensure women have the toll free number in their phones in advance so they can text in easily.
  • Work with other partners, e.g. churches and mosques especially in religious areas, to disseminate upcoming programme information
  • Schedule broadcasts to when women are more likely to be available to listen and participate.
  • Run a longer series of radio shows to build trust in and familiarity with the forum and therefore participation over time.

Takeaway design advice

  • Take time to prepare and test the radio scripts and questions before the broadcast. Small stories will make the tax topic more appealing – wording and expression used all boost audience engagement.
  • Work closely with the radio presenters – they are the gatekeepers to your intended audience and their enthusiasm will create rapport. Train them in inviting a wide variety of opinions, reading messages on air and repeating the show question and number.
  • Ensure presenters have as much information available on the topic to them as possible, (in simple formats) and train them on audience engagement strategies
  • Consider the political and legal backdrop, particularly important in volatile contexts, and ensure the timing is right, for example, don’t hold such interventions during an election period.

Working with partners is central to this approach, as are Responsible Data commitments to protect people’s privacy, which is now more important than ever with closing civil society spaces. These projects are helping us to bridge issues of citizen engagement through using technologies in new and appropriate ways to reach people and ensure their voices are heard.

Further reading:

*There were 38 million mobile phone users in a population of over 47 million in 2016


Duncan Green

Duncan Green is strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and co-writes and maintains the From Poverty to Power blog. He is author of the books ‘From Poverty to Power‘, ‘How Change Happens’ and Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. He’s also a lead educator for the free online course Make Change Happen, developed by Oxfam with the Open University