'Digital' Kenyans must organise for their voices to be heard

Sunday July 10 2016

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
More by this Author

Since the promulgation of the Constitution, we have been on an interesting journey to figure out public participation in governance.

Public consultations are a must for various processes, such as budget proposals at county and national level, proposed policies, Bills and regulations.

We are yet to figure out what constitutes a sufficient threshold for public participation, but the process, flawed though it may be, does take place, and the constitutional value is being entrenched.

In 1969, Sherry R. Arnstein published a seminal framework for assessing citizen participation, against a backdrop of hierarchical societies.

She states, in no uncertain terms, that citizen participation, first and foremost, is a categorical term for citizen power. It is, she offers, “ the means by which they can induce significant social reform which enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society.”

With the ubiquity of ICT devices, it has been asserted that “citizen power” will be truly claimed, and it is happening, in fits and starts. Spend a day on social media and you will not miss some call to action on this or that issue. But how much of it has actually contributed to reform, that often-stated term?

The jury may be out, but events this week have given me hope that Kenyans are climbing the ladder of citizen participation.

Arnstein introduces eight rungs in the ladder of citizen participation. The first two are Manipulation and Therapy, which are considered:

levels of "non-participation", contrived by some to substitute for genuine participation.

Many would argue that the participation we see on social media in Kenya is largely concentrated on these low rungs, taking the form of expressing rage or dissatisfaction, then applying the all-too-popular “accept and move on” tactic.

The third rung is informing, while the fourth is Consultation, which:

when proffered by power-holders as the total extent of participation, citizens may indeed hear and be heard. But under these conditions they lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by the powerful.

I would argue that many Nairobians would categorise their interaction with their county government as Consultation, perhaps being the same in other counties, as well as the scope of engagement with the national government on various issues.

PRIVATE MEMBER'S BILL

Arnstein says that “when participation is restricted to these levels, there is no follow-through, no "muscle," hence no assurance of changing the status quo.” Sound familiar?

Interestingly, the fifth level on the ladder, Placation, "is simply a higher level tokenism because the ground rules allow have-nots to advise, but retain for the power holders the continued right to decide.”

I think we have been seeing a lot of Placation with the more digital-savvy decision makers within the political space.

Citizens, when moving up to the sixth rung, can enter into a Partnership, “enabling them to negotiate and engage in trade-offs with traditional power holders.” Finally, at the top, there are Delegated Power and Citizen Control. These last three rungs are considered to be an acquisition of citizen power, as it is defined.

This gradation is an interesting yardstick with which to assess the strengths and limitations of our citizen participation, particularly around the unfolding developments within the ICT sector.  This week, the Kenyan ICT community came upon the gazetting of the so-called ICT Practitioners Bill, whose contents are controversial, to say the least.

It is a private member's’ Bill, and did not originate from the ICT Ministry. An MP can sponsor a Bill in Parliament, after which it is gazetted, before going through the First Reading and a Second Reading before being passed on, in this case, to the Energy, Communication and Information Committee, which can ask for public consultations.

Then follows the Third Reading in Parliament. If it is passed, it is forwarded to the President for Assent. Kenya Law also offers an explainer on the legislative process.

The Bill, which seems to have its origins in the ICT Association of Kenya (ICTAK), seeks to, among other things, introduce licensing measures for all ICT practitioners. It was brought to Parliament by the House Majority Leader, Aden Duale.

OUT OF SYNC

A newspaper announcement, discovered only by dedicated readers of print, indicated that memoranda submitted by the public were to be received by the Clerk of the National Assembly by 5pm on July 7, 2016, which, incidentally was a holiday.

I would say that this announcement falls within the Consultation rung in the citizen participation ladder, considering how many people would have missed it were it not for the few sleuths who took screenshots of it and shared on social media.

While the overwhelming sentiment against the Bill was solidifying, with hashtags like #KillTheICTBill gaining traction, and a petition was initiated, it wasn’t very clear if and how all these voices would be consolidated.

Established entities like the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) and the Technology Service Providers of Kenya (TESPOK) have mechanisms to convey and submit their positions. However, a vast majority of practitioners probably aren’t members of those organisations.

Yet here was the prospect of suffocating a nascent industry through an ill-informed piece of legislation.

What has followed, however, is what encourages me that we may be set on a trajectory of claiming citizen power.

Using a simple Google Doc, an overflow of questions and positions of discontentment with the Bill have been shared, and a couple of volunteers have worked tirelessly to produce a template submission or memoranda that made the initial deadline (which has since been extended, following TESPOK’s request for the same).

On Friday morning, July 8, 2016, a statement by the ICTAK Secretary General, from whom the Bill assumedly originated made the rounds, justifying the introduction of the Bill.

Most of its assertions are ludicrous and completely out of sync with the workings of the industry. It warranted a strong rebuttal, and it was yet another opportunity to organise what would otherwise be scattered sentiments on Twitter and other forums.

Another collaborative document is currently shaping up as a line-by-line rebuttal to the ICTAK statement.

EMBOLDEN KENYANS

As one involved in the peer-distributed collation of practitioners’ views, this has probably been the widest form of stakeholder engagement I have observed and been involved in! The missing link, to move us from tokenism, to citizen power has seemingly been the consistent practice of organising.

Getting topics to trend on Twitter is not difficult, but that level of participation is predicated on the notion that those sentiments will reach the eyes and ears of people in power, playing perfectly into what Arnstein identified as Consultation and Placation.

These organised voices are also being heard, loud and clear. The next couple of days will entail engagement that brings together both industry associations and individuals, who ranged from ICT sales people, to coders and developers, to students. To me, this effort speaks to the early stages of Delegated Power, hopefully toward Citizen Control, of how the ICT sector is legislated and regulated in Kenya.

Many people have been learning the workings of policy and legislation as we march on, yet that has not been a deterrent to speaking up and speaking out on the incompatibility of the Bill to the praxis and even theories of ICT’s role in modern society.

Legal experts, academics, industry stalwarts have all been working together on this effort to convey a unified message, that the legislation as envisioned in the Bill is impractical. Further, no one seems to know anyone who is a member of ICTAK!

The "battle" is ongoing, but it is my hope that this exercise serves to further embolden ordinary Kenyans to actually participate in governance processes. It is just as well, in our ICT-centric world, that this level of engagement would emerge from within the ICT sector.

In the words of the late Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, “don’t agonise, organise.” Organising has been a missing link in our agonising, but I’m glad we are flexing our organising capabilities. We may yet be organising our way into true and sustained citizen power.

Twitter: @NiNanjira