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Public accountability lessons from Toyota

By Bob Kasango

When to espouse the virtues of humility, mutual respect and integrity

Akio Toyoda, the 54 year old grandson of the company’s founder is the president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation.

Toyota Motor Corporation is the world’s largest automobile maker by sales. Its total revenue for the period ending March 2009 was almost US$ 209 billion.

Compare that to Uganda’s GDP of US$14,529 million and International reserves of US$ 3.005 billion, both for the year 2009 according to Bank of Uganda.

Toyota is in the ‘big boys club’ and Uganda is in ‘baby class’in terms of economic power and influence!

By Oct 2009, 3.8 million Toyota vehicles were recalled in the US following floor mat problems. More recalls followed in the next few months, over various safety concerns, totaling 8.5 million vehicles worldwide by Feb., the month when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the US Congress opened investigations into the recall.

Toyoda had initially said that he wished to stay in Japan and planned to send Yoshi Inaba, chief of Toyota’s North America operations, to face Congress.

But he then signaled a change of heart and said he would testify, after the chairman of the House Committee formally called for him to do so.

On Feb. 23, he appeared before the House Committee and was subjected to a three-hour verbal water-boarding!

Toyoda humbled himself in the face of controversy and spoke to the world through the House Committee: “All the Toyota vehicles bear my name. For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well. I, more than anyone wish for Toyota’s cars to be safe, and for our customers to feel safe when they use our vehicles.’ And he added: ‘We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization and we should be sincerely mindful of that.’

Toyoda said he was ‘deeply sorry’for accidents which had occurred and made a personal apology to the family of Mark Saylor, a California highway patrol officer killed along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in a crash that led to the US government scrutiny of problems with acceleration in some models.

I do not mean to be an apologist for Toyota and Toyoda for their current design and production problems. There is little question that the long-held impression of Toyotas being solid and dependable has taken several shots. Toyoda himself has admitted that the carmaker has strayed from its historic emphasis on quality.

Toyoda is rich powerful and influential and oversees a company much richer than Uganda. In spite of all that, he flew to Washington and apologised to the world. We live in a world where leaders MUST be answerable to those that get them to their positions of wealth and influence.

Global sales of Toyota automobiles plummeted 15% when the recalls were announced but soon after Toyoda’s appearance on Capitol Hill, domestic sales in the US jumped 45%, while overseas sales rose nearly 9%.

Toyota’s performance was closely watched and although some questions were raised about the sincerity of his apology, he saved a bad situation getting worse and won back consumer confidence and trust.

How else could Toyota have retained the loyalty of its customers? In today’s world, that means respecting customer preferences and privacy, conducting business honestly and providing a consistently high-quality customer experience. What it does not mean is continuing to be arrogant and failing to admit mistakes and correct wrongs even where it is cheaper to do so, as it always is.

Closer home, CHOGM was hosted more than two years ago. Another CHOGM has since taken place and plans for the next I believe are underway but the dust in Uganda is far from settling.

The hullabaloo is all about our leaders and accountability. The Public Accounts Committee of Parliament is preoccupied with attempting to fill the huge gaps in the accountability, if any, presented by many public officials. I have my own reservations about how and why the PAC is pursuing these matters.

Many individuals have voluntarily appeared before the PAC and undergone some verbal water-boarding and public humiliation.

Some ‘heavy-weights’, notably Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya, have either flatly thrown the summons in the face of the PAC or when circumstances have forced them to go to the PAC, they have been dragged there, shouting and protesting.

None of these politicians is in the league of Toyoda in whichever prism you may choose to look at them. He pales them by comparison. By resisting and rejecting the authority of the PAC, they are directly resisting the people of Uganda and telling us by implication that we do not really matter; after all we do not drive their ‘Toyotas’! But someone had better remind them that those four-wheel drive Toyotas in which they ride are ours and those reserved parking spaces they enjoy are ours.

They have avoided all public responsibility through ego and arrogance and so often by splitting legal hairs. The Attorney General has weighed in with a legal opinion in support of the VP and his opinion has attracted as much debate as the fact of the VPs appearance.

The AG when asked for an opinion is obliged to give one and while his interpretation of the law may differ from that of other lawyers; their opinions do not matter to government, his does. Spending time on AGs opinion is diversionary, the issue simply put is: from a moral point, should these politicians appear before the PAC? They may not even be legally obliged to, but what do good sense and their conscience tell them?

By refusing to appear before the PAC, these politicians create unnecessary suspicions, conclusions and huge credibility and reputational issues around them.

To his credit, Amama Mbabazi has appeared before the PAC and, it is alleged, so will the VP. All good, but the damage is done and the submission is seemingly after President Museveni accepted to appear before the PAC.

In situations like this, where there is a possibility of being misunderstood, where your credibility and honour are at stake, their best bet would be to be open, real and genuine. Tell the truth in a way people can verify and not refusing to appear and leaving in a world of illusion. It is about simply being upfront about issues and addressing them in a spirit of transparent and complete disclosure. Transparency makes enormous sense; you don’t have to worry about which person you address the matter with or which approach you take. You don’t have to worry about Theodore Ssekikubo or Nandala Mafabi, just be honest and talk straight, tell it like it is. After all you all say you have nothing to hide and that all you did was in good faith.

The problem with our politicians is that even when telling the truth sets them free, they seldom will and when they do, they tell it in a convoluted manner! They ought to learn to tell the truth and leave the right impression because it is possible, as so often is the case with them, to tell the truth and leave the wrong impression.

Communicate so clearly that you leave the right impression and cannot be misunderstood. The downside of beating around the bush, withholding information and legally splitting hairs is that in the ultimate when the truth is unearthed, it creates a huge, unnecessary and avoidable tax on their credibility.

The problem is so often one of swollen egos, of pride and arrogance. What our leaders really need to learn – both the hunter (the PAC) and the hunted, is to extol and espouse the virtues of humility, mutual respect and integrity. Not to always deny, justify wrongs and rationalise wrongful behavior.

They must learn to do what they can to correct their mistakes. Gen. Salim Saleh is one public figure that learned and mastered this art a long while back and his humility, openness and willingness to accept his mistakes, apologise and where possible make good the mistake has endeared him both to the public and his higher”ups. It has left his credibility and honesty largely intact and he is for that reason one of the few most believable public figures in Uganda.

To fail to admit a mistake until you are forced to do so is being humbled by circumstance rather than conscience. The truth is everybody makes mistakes and the issue is never whether you will make one but rather when you do, what will you do about it? Whether you choose the path of ego, pride and arrogance or humility and courage is very much the dividing line between the conscious and arrogant politician.

But back to our hypocritical Parliament. Does anyone not see the problems with their strident and abusive treatment of witnesses? For one thing, most of these enquiries are in themselves a good thing – we must hold our leaders accountable through our elected representatives. But our representatives many a time have scores to settle with potential witnesses, directly or indirectly and so it is baffling that they do not see the ‘conflict of interest’ in lambasting a direct competitor. And should there not be disclosure of any such ‘conflict of interest’ by any such committee members?

Hypocrisy is a commodity of which the supply in our Parliament is always copious. At most of its hearings, the hypocrisy runneth over.

I also find it almost comical, watching from afar, to see members of Parliament who have created an absolute train wreck out of the economy and our system of government, try to take someone to task for failing to account. You have tinkered with our Constitution at the slightest beckon and sold your souls when called to make decisions of historic significance, your voices have fallen silent when they should be loudest. It’s no justification for errant public officials but hey, look in the mirror, Parliament, and see who has done more harm to the Ugandan public. You win ” it is not even a close contest.
Bottom line, most Ugandans are weary of Parliament and the joke it has made of the political process. Cumulative approval ratings of parliamentary performance are at historic lows.

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