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Engage citizens for devolution to work

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By VICTOR RATENG
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There are success stories of devolution across Kenya. But, in spite of these, many Kenyans (in fact three out of four, going by public opinion research statistics) say they find it difficult to meet their county leaders, influence local decision-making or even access information on public finances.

These three are the core of citizen engagement, and central to the Constitution of Kenya when it comes to devolution. In that respect, one can easily conclude devolution is considerably struggling.

Going by the feelings and realities expressed by citizens, the question therefore is: How are counties making development decisions and implementing projects when, to many, they are inaccessible and unenthusiastic of citizens’ views?

An indisputable hypothesis is counties are taking the easy route — minimal, convenient or no engagement.

It’s rightly arguable counties could be struggling with human capacity issues and finances when it comes to engaging citizens.

In 2016, the Ministry of Devolution alongside the Council of Governors launched guidelines for public participation, and these guiding principles pre-empted possible challenges.

Issues such as planning and financing, reach out and inclusion, threshold and incentives among others, are anticipated.

A key factor complicating and undermining the quality of citizen engagement is citizens themselves being unavailable to engage.

Research shows that the most frequently mentioned barrier is citizens being busy and lacking time (70 percent).

Add apathy, lack of information, and distance and you have a significant majority excluded both at the county and national levels, leaving policymakers and implementers to do things as they please. This, in turn, is a big deterrent to transparency and accountability.

With the current scenario where a majority feel excluded and are unavailable at the same time, so much could be happening.

The small proportion that’s available could be making decisions that favour a small section of a county or endorsing those in line with the policymakers’ desires.

Counties are probably ending up with projects that don’t meaningfully meet the larger counties’ needs.

The reality remains that citizen engagement has to be spearheaded by county governments.

Opportunities also lie in mobile phone technology where counties, with the help of professionals, could create panels of respondents whose views they seek on development matters as well as evaluation.

Technology has the advantage of documentation; where people are, how many people were contacted, those who responded and how they even responded, be it SMS, phone calls, or e-mails, et cetera.

The 2019 census offers an opportunity for counties to map out their counties properly if they want to improve citizen participation using advanced technology. Perhaps technology well help bridge this gap.

The writer is Senior Researcher at Twaweza East Africa where he runs the Sauti Za Wananchi Public Opinion Research Programme. Views are his own.

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