The Politics of Participation

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Participation is now a constitutional necessity in Kenya, but how should the government approach this new inclusivity? Nic Cheeseman explore the issue, as part of his regular column for the Daily Nation. 

The new constitution requires the government to ensure that the public is able to participate in key decision-making processes. Unsurprisingly, progress towards this goal has been slow. Participation is costly and difficult to manage, especially in a country that is large and ethnically diverse. At the same time, open and transparent processes do not come naturally to Kenyan political institutions. From the one-party era onwards, the budget process has tended to be carefully guarded by the executive, and public scrutiny has been avoided rather than encouraged.

County governments have other good reasons to be cautious about public participation. On the one hand, if they meet with a very small number of people, they risk being taken to court for not casting the net of participation sufficiently widely. On the other, if they engage with a broad cross-section of the population they may be subject to diverse and pressing demands that they cannot meet. Many counties have also complained that members of the public do not actually turn up at designated participation sessions. So how can counties meet their constitutional requirements without disappointing their electorates?

 Challenge 1: timing

The constitution mandates county governments to allow open government and to promote public participation in all areas. When implementing this requirement, county governments will need to carefully consider at what stage of the governance process public participation will be the most effective and the most beneficial. Given that governments make decisions throughout the year, and that many government programmes, such as infrastructure investment, will be multi-year projects, the ideal scenario would be to have ongoing public participation throughout the year.

However, such extensive participation may not be possible immediately, and so this ideal may be best thought of as a long-term goal for counties to work towards over the next decade. In the short-term, it is becoming increasingly accepted both within Kenya and in global best practice that the budgetary planning process represents the ideal opportunity to engage with citizens because it represents an opportunity to engage with multiple groups in a focused way, and because this is when key decisions are made over the way in which resources are distributed.

Challenge 2: aggregating public opinion 

Even if effective public participation takes place, counties face the challenge of aggregating public opinion into a specific set of actionable ideas. After all, citizens may not agree in their views, especially if they are consulted in a variety of meetings, such that different groups select different priorities. The point of participation is not simply to allow voters to have their voices be heard, but to allow them to shape policy proposals. For this to happen, county governments must develop a mechanism through which the outcome of public participation is translated into the budget planning process. This will require counties to answer difficult questions, such as how much weight to give to public consultations, and how to accommodate divergent points of view.

Indeed, given the current emphasis on public participation it is important to note that civic engagement is one of several policy tools or guidelines that shape the direction of policy at the county level – other important factors include national legislation, campaign promises from elected leaders, and the budget envelope. While it is important that citizens’ views are not ignored as a result of other priorities, it is also important that the public understands that counties will not be able to respond to all of their demands. In other words successful public participation requires careful expectations management

Challenge 3: ensuring representation

Ideally, public participation processes should be genuinely representative of the diverse interests within a given county. This is essential if counties are to fulfil their legal obligations, but it is also important because it will empower the county to better respond to the needs of citizens, and to earn their trust and support. In many cases, this will not be easy, and will require counties to think creatively about how citizens can be engaged.

For example, consider the participation of women. Women must be supported to participate equally to men, as set out in the constitution, but this rarely happens within the Kenyan political landscape. In the last elections, the gender quota clause relating to the composition of the National Assembly was “deactivated”, and women fared very poorly in elections at the county level. Given this, it cannot be taken for granted that public participation will respect gender equality unless counties make special arrangements, such as actively recruiting female participants, or holding women-only sessions.

It will also be important for counties to think carefully about how they can make sure that individuals from a full range of economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds are able to participate. This is not just a matter of fulfilling constitutional requirements or understanding citizens’ needs: if public participation does not include large sections of society it is unlikely to be seen as legitimate, undermining one of the key goals of the exercise.

 Managing public participation

There is no one-size-fits-all model for civic engagement and public participation. A flexible approach is important to account for the significant variations that exist between the counties of Kenya when it comes to issues such as population density, literacy levels, and media use. It will therefore be important that each county tailors its engagement and participation activities to fit local realities.

As a result, counties will need to invest in both developing communication and participation strategies and in constructing the institutional frameworks through which they will be implemented. This will require counties to establish new public relations and public participation departments with dedicated and appropriately trained staff.

If participation is largely focused around the budget process, where it can make the most difference, it will be important for county governments to identify key moments within the budget planning process in which public participation is required. The budget process can be understood to have three main stages when it comes to public participation: participatory budgeting (1), budget approval and communication (2), and budget review and audit (3).

Ideally, participation should occur at all three stages, because public oversight is an important way to tackle both policy formation and corruption. In the case of review and audit, this implies that it should occur continuously. However, one way to cover all three stages that would reduce the cost and complexity of public participation for counties would be to combine stages 1 and 3, enabling the public to review the implementation of previous spending plans before engaging in consultation on the new budget cycle.

A simplified business cycle

Diagram Diagram










Stage 1 and 3 – participatory budgeting and budget review

For participation to be meaningful, citizens must have the capacity to engage in the budget process before the executive has finalized its proposal. The public must also be able to assess whether or not previous agreements have been implemented. It therefore makes sense to begin the process of public participation for every new budget by empowering the public to review progress against the policies set out in the previous budget. This will both enable citizens to play their role in the audit and performance tracking process, and ensure that they are better able to play an informed role when it comes to participatory budgeting.

Past experience suggests that public participation is more likely to generate actionable information if citizens are presented with clear choices and proposals rather than asked to generate their own proposals from scratch. One way to maintain genuine participation while ensuring that the debate remains focused would be for the county executive to present a simplified early version of the proposed budget to participants, together with information about the other kinds of spending patterns that might be possible given budget constraints.

Citizens could then be invited to provide feedback on whether they fully share the spending priorities set out in the budget or believe that other issues should take priority. The advantage of initially framing civic engagement around the proposed budget and the actual budget envelope is that it will encourage citizens to be more realistic in their demands, and to make suggestions that are more compatible with the economic and political strategy that the government wishes to take.

Stage 2 – budget approval and communication

To ensure that citizens are able to follow the budget process, and to engage with the final budget rather than the proposed budget, it will also be important to allow for public participation once the assembly has debated the budget, and a final draft of the budget has emerged from the dialogue between the executive and the legislature. This second episode of participation could take the form of disseminating the final budget plan to inform citizens and elicit feedback. Such meetings and communications would offer the opportunity to a) demonstrate to citizens that some of their concerns have been reflected in the final document, b) explain to citizens why some of the issues that were raised could not be accommodated (as is likely).

At the same time, citizens should be given the opportunity to identify any parts of the final budget that they see as particularly problematic, so that these can be fully discussed before the budget is finalized. One key principle of public participation is that while county governments may not always be able to make the changes identified by citizens, the proposals made through the process of civic engagement should not be rejected without citizens being provided with a clear explanation as to why.

The benefits of participation

Conducted in this way, public participation has a lot to offer Kenyan counties – even those that are publicity shy. Most obviously, effective participation and communication means that county governments are more likely to implement policies that match the preferences of citizens, and are more likely to be given credit for doing so. Less obviously, there are significant benefits that can be reaped in terms of boosting popular support for the government and for local revenue generation. This is particularly significant given that many county governors have stressed the need for greater resources in order to meet their responsibilities.

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