Front Row: Trans Nzoia County Officials from Department of Planning and Budgeting during the Public Awareness Seminar on Public Participation
Public Participation: Key to devolution success

Kenya’s constitutionally mandated devolution has been touted as one of the world’s most ambitious decentralization process that brought with it great promise and high expectations for Kenyan’s. Undoubtedly, if well-implemented devolution has the potential to bring government, resources, and decision making closer to the people and a realization of the constitutional right of self-governance.

However, on the basis of just concluded Public Awareness Seminars supported by the Civil Society Urban Development Platforms (CSUDP) in 211 Counties that brought together members of County Urban Forums (CUFs)2 and county officials among them County Executive Members (CECs), Chief Officers and Chairs of relevant County Assembly Committees to reflect on the experience of public participation in key county processes such as formulation of County Integrated Development Plans (CIDPs), Annual Development Planning, Annual Budgeting etc., Wanjiku is still yearning to have a say and to be meaningfully involved in decisions that affect her life.  

During these sessions questions abound as to whether the first five years of devolution empowered ordinary citizens, produced people-centered and inclusive development, improved service delivery, reduced poverty or even mitigated spatial inequality. These questions are not for us to answer, but rather for all Kenyans to ponder and particularly those who are steering devolution. Fears were raised that elite capture is slowly clipping in at the county level and if not quickly arrested will result into the same skewed power relationship of previous centralized governance regime distancing the poor and the marginalized from local governance institutions.

How then shall we ensure that devolution delivers on its promise? The key lies in bridging the gap between the legal public participation framework and the actual practice at the county level, argued participants with Makueni County devolution success story as the reference point. Noteworthy, the Makueni success is anchored on a public participation model that has established structures of public participation from the village level. The model was acclaimed at the 5th Devolution Conference hosted by Kakamega County in April 2018 and counties urged to visit Makueni for bench-marking.

We however, do have a few other counties where county governments and civil society are innovatively engaging. In Kilifi County, citizens are driving the development agenda through a bottom-up participatory budgeting model spearheaded by Kilifi County Citizen Forum (KCCF) that has been embraced by the county government. Through this model, village level budget forums are held where citizens deliberate on development priorities coming up with an ‘ Citizens Alternative Budget (CAB)’. KCCF then uses the CAB to engage the county government soon after the County Executive Budget Proposal is issued as well as lobby the respective County Assembly Committee. Through this model, an increasing number of citizen development priorities (10% in the 2013/14 to 43% in the 2017/18 financial year) have been accommodated in the approved annual county budgets. The Alternative Citizens Budget initiative has been supported by CSUDP and other development partners. 

In Mombasa County, the Mombasa County Urban Forum (MCUF) has become a popular platform for citizen participation in county policy formulation processes. A case in point is the highly participatory Mombasa Land Policy formulation process where MCUF facilitated land clinics in all six sub-counties, multi-stakeholder forums and structured engagements with both the executive and the County assembly through the support of CSUDP. The land policy is already being applied to address the historical land issues that have bedeviled this coastal city for decades.

Other models of state-citizen engagement shared during the seminars include quarterly Governors Round-table in Nakuru County and joint sectoral initiatives in Kakamega and Uasin Gishu Counties led by the respective County Urban Forums. Acknowledging that both the citizens and the county governments have a role to play in moving public participation from being just another public gimmick to satisfy legal requirements to a meaningful process that meets citizens aspirations, participants identified ways of strengthening public participation:

  1. Institutionalization of public participation through policies and legislations with clear guidelines and minimum standards.
  2. Improving access to information in a timely and in public consumable form.
  3. Conducting public participation at village as opposed to ward level.
  4. County government to allocate budgets to facilitate public participation and civic education
  5. County government to build the capacity of their officers to effectively facilitate public participation.
  6. County governments to develop feedback mechanisms.  

1 Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Kakamega, Homabay, Tana River, Nyeri, Embu, Isiolo, Garissa, Lamu, Kwale, Kilifi, Machakos, Kajiado, Kitui, Trans Nzoia, Meru, and Kiambu.

2County Urban Forums (CUF) are county level urban plaforms for dialogue and consensus building on urban issues of common concern. CUFs comprises of town-level Local Urban Forums (LUFs) established through the support of CSUDP and currently operational in 21 Counties listed above.

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