Public Participation: What could it mean and what does it mean?

County Public Service Board chairman Joe Donde makes his contribution during public participation on the County Government Retirement scheme bill at the Senate. April 10, 2018. Photo/Jack Owuor
County Public Service Board chairman Joe Donde makes his contribution during public participation on the County Government Retirement scheme bill at the Senate. April 10, 2018. Photo/Jack Owuor

“All sovereign power belongs to the people…” (Article 1) and active public participation is one way of making this (and the national value of democracy) a reality. But surveys often show that rather few Kenyans are actually involved in government decision-making that affects them, though more would wish to be involved.

Some media have reported officials as saying that because there is no policy and no law on public participation, they do not know how to do it.

True, a national policy on public participation is in draft form, and Senator Amos Wako’s Public Participation Bill seems to have got stuck at Committee stage in mid-2018. I fear that these documents will be of limited practical help to the puzzled public servant.

The Bill is extremely general, sprinkled with words and phrases such as “effective mechanisms”, “meaningful manner”, “opportunity to influence the intended decision and “realistic timeframe”.

It will provide those public servants with further reasons for not doing very much because regulations have not been adopted.

The draft Policy points out some of the current inadequacies of public participation, and is again full of sensible but vague principles and sometimes promises (like adequate funding). Like the Bill it pushes implementation down the road by saying guidelines will be developed.

Proposals for coordinating and for evaluating what has been done are useful.

In reality, there is enough in the way of guidance already for the public sector to make a beginning. In 2014, the Public Service Commission produced a set of guidelines for participation in policy making that are very general. Two years later, the Ministry of Devolution produced a set of guidelines for counties. This is a good deal more specific and helpful (and just as much so as for national as county agencies) than the draft policy and bill.

Counties have produced their own Participation Acts, while several national acts of Parliament say when there should be participation, sometimes who should be consulted and sometimes even how (notably the County Government Act – though the suggestions are basically for meetings and notices).

Civil society groups, including Uraia and International Budget Partnership, have produced various handbooks, civic education manuals and so on. USAID produced a useful guide to citizen engagement in power projects, with more concrete and practical suggestions than in most Kenyan government documents I have seen.

SO FAR SO….?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Nairobi, for example, is taking participation seriously. And Makenui has been systematic in its setting up of mechanisms, with a system of meetings at levels from the most local to the county. Its recent report on participation in 2017-18 usefully highlights some of the difficulties faced in participatory programmes, as well as listing many decisions reached with community participation

Academic articles, student theses and civil society scorecards on the achievements and failures so far abound. Criticism about lack of notice, lack of information in ways that people will understand, or sometimes of any information, of inadequate time, of lack of real opportunity to influence decisions, and lack of feedback about how views have been considered and taken into account abound. At a recent meeting, the Commission on Revenue Allocation reported on a small project, showing the widely varying amounts of information that counties were making available through their website.

We are learning that some people expect to be paid for attending meetings (but not a majority), that where a governor is alleged to be corrupt, people are less likely to attend meetings, that if they see that notice is taken of their views, they are more likely to attend. We know that more men usually attend events than women, the wealthier and the poorest than those of middle income, and the least well educated are unlikely to attend.

The situation may be improving. A mid-2018 survey by Twaweza showed that about four out of 10 people who responded had attended a public meeting during the previous year. The main reason people gave for not attending was being too busy, including with work. The main topics discussed at those meetings were water, education, security and roads. When you add to these snippets of information the fact that two-thirds have met with small number of people to discuss public issues, you have a picture of a fairly engaged society.

On the other hand, almost 80 per cent of those interviewed also complained it was not easy to meet county leaders, have any impact on decision-making in the county or find out about their county’s budgets, laws and projects.

Engaging with local civil society was a bit easier – but not a great deal. On the other hand around 50 per cent said they thought leaders took public views into account - or, if you are a glass half-empty person, half did not.

And still far too little notice is being given of some opportunities to participate, with Parliament being a major offender.

A LACK OF IMAGINATION?

The go-to format in Kenya is the public meeting (whether you call it a “town-hall meeting” like the County Government Act, using American terminology, or something else).

The legacy of the baraza is powerful: The meeting at which chiefs inform the people of what government’s plans and what is expected of them. Although people may express their views, research suggests there is generally no system of recording what the people said, still less of guaranteeing that any account is taken of those views.

As it is, too many public meetings comprise a session in which

presentations are made to the assembled public (who may or may not include some who are already knowledgeable), trying to explain complex issues on which they have not been able to get details in advance. The meeting probably starts late, the explainers talk for too long, the participation session is called “Q and A” – suggesting it is not about learning from the public but continuing the explanations to the public – it is not clear that there is room for any real change in the decision on the basis of public input, and there is no feedback to the public about whether their input has made any difference.

There is a risk that public input will involve either the reasonably expert, or the uninformed ordinary citizen. Ideally the system, indeed the Constitution, requires both. The challenge is to enable the non-expert to be better informed, through general civic education, publicising background information and options, in language that is not unnecessarily technical (or even deliberately obscure).

Then the methods for gathering information need to ensure geography, physical barriers, cultural inhibitions, environment, reluctance to speak in public, nervousness of public officials (or public officials’ officiousness) do not stand in the way of participation.

There is a very large literature in the wider world about participation, going far beyond the vagueness of Kenya’s policies and guidelines to describe different ways of interacting with the public. Naturally some of these are designed for very different societies, geographies, literacy levels, and resource levels. But if other societies have been able to develop a wide variety of methods to involve their people, so can Kenya for hers.

People have devised many ways of making even public meetings more participatory and reflective. And there are techniques for involving citizens on a longer term basis so that they get a genuine understanding of the issues. Techniques may be called things like “citizens’ juries” or “citizens’ panels”, “focus groups”, “deliberative polling”, “public hearings”, or “open houses”. Countries have had longer terms citizens’ assemblies and citizen’s advisory panels on specific issues, like health or electoral reform.

MOVING ON

Techniques that work will vary according to topic, community, gender, and age. One size will not fit all. Counties and national agencies will need to try things out, study the results, evaluate their own efforts, make adjustments, and try new things. But until things are tried we shall not learn what works.

Katiba Institute will try to make some useful material available online.