The Fallacy of Public Participation

Guest Writer
4 February ,2014

by Shitemi Khamadi

Recurrent protests in counties on increased levies and taxes by county governments need to ignite discourses on what public participation entails. At face value, the protesters, including traders and boda boda operators among others, have a genuine concern.However, when one delves deeper, counties have limited sources of revenue and if development is to be achieved, local revenues are the most reliable sources of income.

Counties can only impose property and entertainment tax. Looking at the 47 counties, too few actually have reliable revenue sources from these two mechanisms. The levies in various counties are also unreliable when it comes to spurring growth. In future, more thought will be needed on how to generate revenue.

Perhaps the drafters of the constitution were ill informed on this issue- unaware of the hapless local governments with poor management systems, weak absorption capacity and appalling general operational capacity. They were not ready to be bestowed with more taxation mechanisms for revenue generation. At the same time, the taxes they imposed should not have been repugnant and counterproductive to development. Article 209 (5) on public finance says that taxation and other revenue raising powers of a county shall not be exercised to prejudice national economic policies.

Through this whole debate, one thing missing is what exactly constitutes public participation. Counties like Machakos have insisted that they did consider this critical national value in Article 10 of the constitution and a benchmark for governance in Kenya and will not look back as the Finance Act is now in place. Counties like Kiambu, even while insisting that public participation had been carried out, opted to shelve the Bill for more deliberations. Many others are somewhere in between.

Before the Uwezo Fund was launched, it is said that some ten people were called and after deliberations, they agreed to have it as critical part of the Jubilee Manifesto. While this is okay, who these ten people are remains a mystery. What is their regional representation and professional clout?

The Constituency Development Fund (CDF) has a practice that could easily be adopted by counties. An announcement is made via a notice board in the CDF office of a forum to discuss bursary distribution. The location of the meeting is put there and no further communication goes into publicizing this. Publicizing it is not only good governance practice but a constitutional imperative in article 35 (3) of the constitution.

Some constituencies are extremely big, as such, probably less than a third of the population will be aware of the meeting and fewer still will attend, let alone give views to be incorporated. Still, they have carried out public participation and the decision of this meeting will inform execution of the bursaries somehow. This practice applied to all other development agenda items.

The County Government Act tries to devolve as much as possible administrative units under the counties to the location level. Many counties have been hiring these officers and in time, their input will likely be felt. These officers are the link between the county government, especially the executive, and the people. Furthermore, elected officials like ward representatives have a window to directly petition the county government on the floor of the house.

The communication tool used to inform society of such steps is key. In areas where the terrain is awful, multiple avenues should be used including radio, barazas, notice boards and elected leaders. Areas with better infrastructure can also utilize newspapers and television. The County Government Act should have foreseen this scenario and spoken on the counties not only using traditional communication mechanisms but being more proactive as well. Some counties, like Nairobi, to plan to have their own radio stations. Others are developing websites.

Many of these passed policies and legislation had an element of public participation at the two main fronts: a public forum and debate in the county assembly. There are, however, a few concerns on how this was done.

First, how effective was the process? Effective means that it should be as constitutive as it can be. All sectors should be included and informed of the details of the forum. Their views should be recognized, appreciated and where possible, utilized. The location of such forums should be central enough to be convenient for the majority.

Second is the of tyranny of numbers. Many counties have both the executive and the assembly majority hailing from the same political party/coalition. The result is that they abide by what the Governor says due to loyalty to him. This does even include the possibility of being “influenced” in order to sing the Governor’s tune.

Representative governance is another issue. It is not easy for an individual to lobby effectively so as to have their say on a bill, for example, when they are not in power. A better way would be to find associations that have leadership structures and use them as lobbying platforms. Boda boda operators, for example, would be one such group. Others including youth, women, and disabled persons groups, and even associations for prostitutes. They would then collect their views and highlight them in the forums.

There have been calls to reduce the counties to eight – the original provinces. This is not the solution and it will likely not see the light the day. Such a move would mean having only eight senators. The rest would go home, and the 16 nominated women would probably be reduced to a small figure like four, with only two special seats as opposed to the four we have at the moment. None of our senators would accept this.

The cries would not end, nor would the huge wage bill reduce. The main reason for the huge wage bill is that there is staff from the local governments who are mostly redundant, while governors scramble to hire their own while still recruiting based on the needs of the counties. Previous local authorities have distinct functions from the current county government hence recruiting new staff is not an issue of if, but when. The county government operates as a full government within the county, unlike previous local authorities.

Capping public spending especially to salaries, allowances and travels and those funds diverted to development is nigh. It entails doing an audit of existing staff since ghost workers are in plenty. The beneficiaries of the ghost workers should be expected to fight back. Governor Kidero will have some insights on the matter.

After the audit, a prudent job evaluation would need to be done to determine the needs, suitability and remuneration of these staff. We must be cautious and patient with devolution. We won’t see much in this first term as systems are still being set up. From next elections, however, things should start taking shape with regards to development.

Beyond the salaries issues, there has to be a conscious efforts by county residents to check these governments. Social audits must be done early, before corruption webs form. The people must take part in county integrated development plans and try to make meaningful contributions to county development. You are not assisting anyone/anything by standing on the periphery then expecting and demanding the things you want to be done. Development is a process, not an event, and your ideas are needed to make devolution work.

As it stands, public participation remains awesome in paper. On the ground, it is something else. Whether something will be done to effectively entrench it is anyone’s guess. Not many governors want many eyes on how they use public money, on whom and where, so the chaotic situation will be with us for a while. Let us hope that the Senate does something to protect and enhance devolution, as is its mandate.

The writer is a governance consultant. Twitter @oleshitemi.

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