Let Counties Seek Participation Benefits
Public participation is one of our national values articulated in Article 10 of the Constitution and pervasive throughout the constitutional and other laws.
It is a cornerstone for the success of Kenya’s devolution agenda of promoting self-governance and the vehicle for delivery of efficient services throughout the 47 counties.
With all its pervasiveness, however, public participation has remained a mystery and, to many Kenyans, a disappointment as they do not realise their expectations of the citizen forums.
Some county governments do public participation just to fulfil the legal and constitutional requirements but may not find it useful for the internal processes and decision-making.
To them, public participation incurs costs and takes time they could well do without.
The public experience equal levels of frustrations and disappointments.
So, what really makes public participation such a myth? Why do we have perhaps less than 10 per cent of the counties finding public participation meaningful?
The main challenge begins with the design of public participation in the counties. Essentially, public participation should be perceived as a process, not an event. A process that has very clear series of activities and expected outcomes.
Public participation must be championed by the top leadership for it to work effectively. It must be owned by the public officials — the technocrats — who are expected to implement it.
It’s the technocrats who roll out the political leadership agenda; so, if they don’t believe in it, or if they do not put in place the right mechanisms and processes for implementing it, then it does not bring out the expected benefits.
The political leadership sets the tone and facilitates the process and gives the necessary resources, allocates adequate time for the processes that ensures that the intended results are realised and reported against by the technocrats. In most counties, the citizen forums are held with the intention of involving the public in planning and budgeting purposes.
What would be the best indicator of the nod from the political leaders?
Firstly, where this has been successful, counties have allocated adequate resources to facilitate the process not just for ward level meetings but sub-locational or locational.
One of the counties, in choosing to really get close to the people and to facilitate them to make their own developmental decisions, held 168 sub-location level citizen forums, an increase from 25 ward level forums the preceding year. The number of participants increased from 349 to 11,600. So while the number of meetings increased six-fold, the actual participants increased 33 times.
Similarly, while the women at the 25 ward meetings had been only 37 (11 per cent), their numbers increased to 4,060 (35 per cent) at the sub-location. The gender aspects are easily visible, in that women had less barriers to attending the meetings if they were held near home.
The query that normally follows this significant increase in the number of meetings is, what was the cost implication?
While the number of participants rose by 33 times, the increase in the spending on the process merely doubled.
The cost of holding lower-level meetings at sub-locations tends to be much less as communities meet in open spaces and only get soft drinks and bread for refreshment in a three-to-four-hour meeting.
Ward level meetings however, attracted spending such as transport costs, lunches, venue charges and other facilitation and allowances charges.
But why go to this great length? Why spend weeks to a month criss-crossing the county to get the views of the public every year to incorporate in the planning and budgeting decisions?
Does ‘Wanjiku’ know what her area development needs are? By all means yes. It’s presumptuous to assume that people who have lived all their lives in a place do not know what they need to make their lives better. At the very minimum, people will tell you that they need water, good roads, schools and health facilities.
The challenge will be to guide and facilitate them to prioritise, define what should come first, and when a project is complex — such as the roads, infrastructure or water — provide the technical feedback on the best way to realise their dreams. But, for sure, wananchi know what they need, and public participation forums should enable them to define, prioritise and then allocate the limited resources in their areas of priority.
For devolution to succeed, effective mobilisation for meetings, management of public forums by developing the rules of engagement, facilitating the prioritisation and allocation of resources, are the key elements to effective public participation.