The introduction of “citizen engagement” into law is an idea that is gaining popularity around the world.
New provisions in Kenya’s recent Constitution enshrine openness, accountability and public participation as guiding principles for public financial management. Yet, as citizen engagement practitioners know, . Experience has shown that in the absence of commitment from leaders and citizens and without appropriate capacities and methodologies, public participation provisions may lead to simple “tick the box” exercises.
Thanks to the support from the Kenya Participatory Budgeting Initiative (KPBI)* and the commitment from West Pokot and Makueni** County leaders, participatory budgeting (PB) is being tested as a way to achieve more inclusive and effective citizen engagement processes while complying with national legal provisions. The initial results are quite encouraging.
Inclusiveness – While typical county budget consultations in Kenya consist of few meetings and limited inclusiveness, PB has increased opportunities for women and remote communities to take part in expenditure prioritization. The Makueni County follows a sequential process of identifying citizens’ priorities, starting at the hyperlocal level and moving up through levels of community organization. With a total of 3,867 meetings and over 350,000 participants, this process includes forums in villages, sub-wards, wards, sub-counties, and one county forum, where 1,000 individuals from across the county set the final expenditure priorities. In West Pokot County, prior to the implementation of PB, women were systematically excluded from budget consultations, representing on average no more than 11% of participants. With the introduction of PB, a combination of new engagement methods and consultations held closer to women’s homesteads led to a three-fold increase in their participation (35%). While further inclusiveness is an imperative, these are promising results that will inform future adjustments of participatory processes in the two counties.
Credibility – Previous budget consultations in the counties consisted of unstructured hearing processes. During these, community representatives proposed an endless list of (often unfeasible) projects for the county. The selection of projects to be implemented remained at the discretion of government officials, based on no formal criteria. This method, which raised citizens’ expectations and simultaneously incentivized “selective hearing” on the part of government officials, undermined citizens’ very trust in the participation process and fueled officials’ skepticism towards the value of such processes. The adoption of PB provides clear rules of the game for the identification, selection, prioritization and validation of projects. PB ties the selected projects to a specific percentage of the capital budget (approximately 30%), thus better managing expectations and enhancing the overall credibility of the process.
- Compliance – The introduction of PB has facilitated compliance with legal requirements for public participation included in the County Government Act (2012) and the Public Financial Management Act (2012). The PB approach has also been shown to lower the transaction costs of such compliance. By providing a structured, streamlined and coherent process, PB avoids fragmented public participation that results in repetitive and overlapping activities which can be costly in terms of participants’ and organizers’ time and resources.
Budget variance – Some early lessons are emerging on how PB is impacting the content of county budgets. Prior to PB, capital expenditures were debated between sectoral departments who were, in large part, concerned with increasing their budget envelopes, which resulted in resource allocation that did not respond to actual needs. An analysis of recent Makueni and West Pokot budgets shows that the PB process has changed this logic, with budget allocation increasingly aligned with citizens’ priorities.
Previously, project proposals focused on building new facilities. Under the PB process citizens’ preferences have tended towards the upgrading or renovation of existing facilities. Before, sectoral departments were typically more interested in larger flagship projects. Now, the county budgets include more community-level projects (e.g., women’s development funds and wells).
- Budget approval – PB has also facilitated budget approval mechanisms by involving Members of the County Assembly (MCAs), who tended to disagree over resource allocation and the use of funds, in the deliberation process. Their participation in – and commitments made during – the PB meetings have allowed for swifter approval of budgets. In West Pokot, where the County Assembly members would previously deliberate on and change the allocations made, in the approval process following their engagement in the PB forums, less changes were made to the proposed budgets.
In the meantime, PB is off to a good start in better aligning resources to needs and leveraging the expertise of citizens to shape decisions that invariably affect their lives.
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