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Public participation in county budgets not strong

By SHITEMI KHAMADI | January 16th 2014


Recurrent protests in counties on the increased levies and taxes by county governments need to ignite discourses on what public participation entails. On the face value, the protesters including traders and boda boda operators among others have a genuine concern.  On the other hand, 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 taxation mechanisms. In future, more will need to think of how to generate revenue. But even levies in many counties are still unreliable to spur any growth that would lead to eventual solid taxation base.

Perhaps the drafters of the constitution on this issue were informed of the hapless local governments that had poor management systems, weak absorption capacity and appalling general operational capacity to be bestowed with more taxation mechanisms for revenue generation. At the same time, there was the need to ensure the taxes are not repugnant and counterproductive to development.

Article 209 (5) on public finance says the taxation and other revenue raising powers of a county shall not be exercised to prejudice national economic policies. This means that revenue generation mechanisms should not be to the disadvantage of the growth of the economy.

In all this debate which will not end soon, what is missing is what constitutes public participation. Some counties like Machakos have insisted that they did undertake 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. Some counties like Kiambu even while insisting that public participation had been done, opted to shelve the Bill for more deliberations. Many others are somewhere in between.

It is said that before the Uwezo fund was launched, some 10 people were called and after deliberations, they agreed to have it as critical part of the Jubilee Manifesto. While this was okay, who this 10 people are remains a mystery. For instance, how is their regional representation, professional clout and government representation addressed!

There was a practice in CDF that can easily be imported to 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 and as such probably less than a third will be aware of the meeting and much less will attend leave alone give their views which are in cooperated. On the face of it, they have done public participation and somehow the decision of this meeting will inform execution of the bursaries. This practice applied to all other development agenda items.

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

The communication tool used to inform society of these critical governance steps is the first point of entry. In many areas where the terrain is awful, multiple avenues should be used including radio, many barazas, notice boards and elected leaders. All these avenues can and should also be used in other areas with better infrastructure but include newspapers and television. The County Government Act could have foreseen this scenario and talked of the counties not only using traditional communication mechanisms but also be more proactive.

This has led to some counties like Nairobi to plan to have their own radio stations. Others are coming up with websites.

Somehow, many of these passed policies and legislation had an element of public participation especially at the two main fronts; a public forum and debate in the county assembly. There is however a few concerns of how this was done.

One is as to how effective the process is. By effective, it should be as constitutive as it can be. Here, you have all sectors being included, well informed of every detail of the forum and their view recognized, appreciated and also absorbed. The location should be central enough to ensure all are accommodated.

Secondly is the issue of tyranny of numbers. There are many counties that have both the executive and the assembly from the same political party or and coalition. The result is that they abide by what the Governor says due to some ‘loyalty’ to him. This does even include the possibility of being influenced in many ways to sing the Governor’s tune.

Thirdly is the practice of representative governance. It is not easy for an individual to lobby effectively to have their say on an issue like a Bill when they are not in power. A better way is through associations who would have structures of leadership and use them as lobbying platforms. They will then collect views of their people and highlight them in the forums.

As it stands, public participation remains awesome only on paper. Not many Governors want eyes on how they use public money, on whom and where.. Let’s hope the Senate does something to protect devolution, which is its cardinal function. 

The writer is a governance consultant.

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