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Open Government sees Promise after Kenya Elections

Robert Hunja's picture

After an impressive turnout in Monday’s presidential elections, one thing is clear about Kenya: citizens are energized and ready to participate in shaping the future of their country.

Despite concerns of violence, voters in Kenya were undeterred and turned out in historic numbers Monday - over 70% participation - to cast ballots in the country’s first presidential election since 2007.

The remarkable level of participation had election officials calling the turnout “tremendous,” as polling places were kept open hours later than scheduled to accommodate lines that stretched “nearly a mile long.” Voters formed lines at polling places well before 6:00 a.m. when the polls opened, and many waited for up to 10 hours to cast their ballots.

While this election is a significant success, its true impact on the everyday lives of Kenyans will depend of how the new administration governs. Kenyans should be able to participate in the decision-making processes of their new government in as robust of a manner as they did when electing it.

This will be particularly important as Kenya embraces fairly radical decentralization of political and resource management to the county level as mandated by the new constitution. More open and participatory processes will be crucial to maintaining accountability and effectiveness at the county level.

The high level of citizen participation must not end in this election; it must mark the beginning of an era of increased citizen participation; an era of open government.

A more open government - in which government is more transparent and citizens can participate more robustly - is a stronger government. A more open government is a government more capable of enacting policies that address the true needs and desires of its population. A more open government is a government best able to foster growth and development for all.

In Kenya, great strides have already been made towards a more open government, and after Monday’s election, now is the time to do more.

The government has signed on to the OGP, and has made specific commitments to openness through its national action plan. The new administration must take the next step by continuing to maintain and fulfill these commitments and Monday’s elections show that Kenyans want to be active participants in that process.

Kenya has also made great strides towards opening more of its information, yet more remains to be done. The Kenya Open Data Initiative is often highlighted as an impressive example of how a government can make more data available to citizens. However, merely publishing some information has not been enough to truly engage a clearly energized citizenry.

Recently, the narrative around open data in Kenya has soured, with reports pointing to low traffic in the web portal and to claims that organizations are not providing enough data.  While those reports raise significant matters, Kenya’s progress in open data is remarkable, nonetheless, and has set the foundation to engage citizens in a more robust and inclusive manner around all sorts of information and data, including budget and contract data.

Building upon the progress achieved thus far in open data will require ensuring that the data that is published is meaningful and useful to Kenyans, that it is published in as accessible a manner as possible, and that there is a concerted effort to build the capacity of wide range of actors in Kenya to engage more deeply around this data.

The incoming administration must also go beyond current efforts, by formulating and crowdsourcing approaches and solutions that will lead to a more open government. Information and communication technologies (ICTs), which have played a significant role in Kenya in this and in other elections, can be a key tool for the realization of these approaches and solutions.

Widely considered a hub for innovations in the use of digital and mobile technologies, and with a 77.2% mobile penetration rate, Kenya must continue to use these tools to foster increased transparency and citizen participation. Great examples of the application of ICTs for a more open government can be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where mobile participatory budgeting has helped raise tax revenues, or in Brazil where the state government of Rio Grande do Sul crowdsources policy solutions.

The Kenyan government can also build on existing work happening in the area of Open Contracting where citizens are coming together to monitor the implementation of contracts for the construction of public projects, such as health centers.

Making budgets more open, by allowing citizens to have access to budget information and supporting digital and mobile channels for citizen feedback and participation, would also be a meaningful step for the national and local governments to engage citizens in a more sustained and significant manner.

The new administration has the responsibility to continue in this path of openness by building upon the progress that has been made through the OGP and the Kenya Open Data Initiative, and by responding to the call of a highly energized citizenry eager to participate.

If the new administration fulfills the promise and potential of open government, the impact will be very significant. The trust between citizens and their government will increase. The use of ICTs will not only make processes more inclusive, but also it has the potential of resulting in the creation of jobs that will particularly benefit the youth. Furthermore, Kenya will achieve enhanced development outcomes in a socially-inclusive way.

A government that is more participatory, more inclusive, and ultimately, more open, is a government that will be best poised and able to lead Kenya to the prosperity all of its citizens deserve.

Photo Credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan. Kenya elections: Long lines

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