During the recent conference on devolution in Meru, delegates deliberated on public participation in counties.
The sub-theme was “civic education and its role in effective public participation”.
Panellists gave some interesting views regarding public participation.
My interest was particularly aroused by a statement from one of them, a senior county government official, who said in instances where they have held public participation forums, people at the grassroots would ask for the prioritisation of specific projects, but leaders would not consider them necessary or important.
This left me with several questions. Why would officials assume that they have better ideas for citizens? Why push something that does not feature in the citizens’ priority list? Do county officials really understand the Constitution?
Article 174 (c) of the Constitution spells out the key role of citizens in county decision-making processes.
It expressly gives powers of self-governance to the people and seeks to enhance their participation in matters and decisions that affect them.
Article 201 is more specific on issues of public finance and lays emphasis on transparency, accountability and public participation.
RIGHT TO PARTICIPATE
In totality, the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to participate at all levels of government.
According to the World Bank Group, public participation, also referred to as citizen engagement, means a two-way interaction between citizens and governments or the private sector that gives the public a stake in decision-making.
It is done with the objective of improving development outcomes.
The support of citizens to devolution itself is not in doubt; it is overwhelming.
According to a recent nationally representative survey by Twaweza East Africa, Sauti za Wananchi, 82 per cent of the citizens of Kenya support devolution.
In the same survey — which was conducted between December 15, 2015, and January 6 — two out five Kenyans reported having participated in a county government meeting where development matters were discussed.
They also expressed their understanding of public participation as “shaping the development agenda”, taking part in meetings, and being involved in county budgeting processes.
There are two main concerns though.
First is the quality of participation, arising from inadequate access to information for citizens on development processes.
Some counties might be deliberately limiting or delaying access to information to weaken citizen oversight and accountability.
A cursory look at the websites of the 47 devolved units is testament to this. Furthermore, very few wananchi access the Internet and local newspapers.
The widest reach is through radio, which seven out of 10 Kenyans listen to regularly.
Vernacular radio stations essentially come in handy as far as this is concerned. Unfortunately, they never seem to be top of mind.
Secondly, in devolution, as a governance principle, what is considered the acceptable level of public participation?
Four things would suffice — timely access to relevant information, adequate time for participation, widespread representation, and feedback mechanisms to citizens by counties.
Access to information is key to enhanced public participation.
When information is provided on time and in simple formats, it can enable citizens to make quick choices on the development issues they would want their counties to address.
Citizens should also be given adequate time to reflect on the proposals by devolved units so that they can give well-informed feedback to county executives.
Rushed participation processes, which are prevalent in counties, deny citizens the opportunity to scrutinise proposals and effectively take part in development meetings.
What has been witnessed in many cases are stage-managed processes, where a few citizens are mobilised. They show up and sign that they took part in the process, of course with the promise of incentives thereafter.
If you asked some of them what they endorsed, you would be met with blank stares.
It is critical that the decisions made in counties include views from a cross section of citizens, irrespective of gender, age, educational level, socio-economic status, political affiliation or clan.
In addition, partisan leadership, limited resources, corruption, poor management and planning inefficiencies might undermine effective citizen participation.
There are interesting insights from the Twaweza survey that are worth examining.
Close to half (47 per cent) of the respondents mentioned Saturday as a preferred day for public participation.
Closest to this was Friday, cited by 15 per cent.
We know very well the implications of public officials working on Saturday. But citizens blame their lack of participation mainly on their failure to get time
About six out of 10 people said a meeting should not last more than three hours, and the same number preferred early to mid-morning hours.
It is our hope that county governments are going to seriously think about the issue of public participation, institute a framework and pre-empt possible challenges that come with it.
They should not make it look like an expensive endeavour as some panellists seemed to suggest. After all, chiefs and their assistants have done it through their barazas for decades now. Citizens are waiting.
The writer is public affairs researcher, Sauti za Wananchi Programme at Twaweza East Africa. [email protected] Twitter: @Victor_Rateng