Seven things to watch in ensuring devolution lives up to expectations

Governor Simba Arati greets KARI Primary School pupils in Kisii County last week. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Kenyans are experiencing an interesting, yet familiar moment. For the third election in a row, we still don't know with finality who the next president is, at least until the Supreme Court's determination. We wanted to get back to work, but we couldn't keep our eyes off this global justice event in the past week.

There is a second part to this moment. For the other five positions that we voted for, about 1,500 successful candidates out of almost 16,000 applicants are ready for work. Among these winners are 47 governors - 32 of whom are new - in whose hands lie the hopes of our counties. This is, after all, devolution's third stanza.

After 45 of these people were sworn into office last week (Governors-elect for Mombasa and Kakamega were voted in this week), we're already seeing action. In Nairobi, there's a fresh 10-point plan, while it seems the end is nigh for NMS running four key county functions, and KRA as county revenue collector.

Garbage collection is back in focus. So too is boda boda/matatu public transport in a couple of counties. Two governors offered us camera opportunities to follow promises to improve healthcare provision across their county health establishments. One governor said he will not work with staff who didn't vote for him (don't ask how he knows). Another one declared pending bills an enemy of his development agenda.

With seven governors being women, we are debating the role of the first gentleman; which we never did for the equal role of first ladies. The ink on oaths of office is not yet dry, but we already have a populist feel to the beginning of devolution's third round.

Almost zero

Like every other electoral job in 2022 from the Presidency to Parliament, the party coalition split between governors is almost zero - after Monday, the tallying scoreboard reads Azimio 23: Kenya Kwanza 22, plus two independents who may or may not be predilected either way. Look out for the next election of the high-profile chair and deputy chair posts at the Council of Governors.

On parties, what did the manifestos say on devolution? In promising to strengthen devolution as a tool of downward accountability, Kenya Kwanza committed to complete the transfer of all devolved functions to counties in six months. They also promised to ensure state-owned firms with devolved or shared functions adhere to the principles of devolved governance, especially that "funds follow functions".

The manifesto also commits to improving own-source revenue generation capacity across counties, timely and predictable transfers of shareable revenue to counties and the transfer of funds owed to beneficiary counties and communities under the Mining and Petroleum Acts while building local capacity to benefit from extractive resources. Don't forget the 47 county economic charters publicly launched pre-election.

Azimio's first azimio (commitment) out of 10 is about Ugatuzi (devolution). It is broadly framed around expanding the finances available to counties while advancing a local resource-based "one county, one product" programme around manufacturing and value addition as an engine for wealth and job creation.

Devolved functions

As with Kenya Kwanza, there is a promise from Azimio to transfer to counties all outstanding devolved functions. There are also commitments to review and enforce policy and law relevant to devolution, while pursuing improvements to the business and investment environment within which counties operate. Promises around an enhanced allocation to 35 per cent of shareable revenue, a neutral disbursement mechanism for shareable funds, and strengthening of the ward as the basic unit of development reflect proposals that were key to the faltered Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). Oh, don't forget that Azimio publicly launched regional economic blueprints before the election.

It is fair to conclude that, between the two main coalitions, devolution is prominent in their plans for Kenya. These are national commitments to devolution. What's missing is a sense of continuity, flavoured by change. Do we have a national - not national government - devolution strategy? Story for another day. Today, let's recall what we said last. If the first wave of devolution set up institutions; and the second invested in infrastructure, this third one is about service delivery and local economic development. It's time to uplift the agenda from hardware to software; from roads, facilities and equipment to progress for people. Consider everything so far as context for our third-stanza governors. As they begin to enjoy the trappings of high office, how might we reassure ourselves they are off to a great start? Here are seven things to watch.

Pie in the sky

The first is the most obvious; getting their agenda up and running. This begins with understanding your governor's manifesto; assuming it exists. If so, it is probably infested with many "pie in the sky" promises, but it might also contain some useful proposals. The trick is to see how this manifesto is factored into the county-specific 2023-2037 County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP). But here's the trickier part.

County technocrats have already been working on this CIDP, while reviewing achievements and lessons from the previous 2018-2022 CIDP. This is the continuity that your governor walks into; that (s)he is not starting from scratch, the train is already on the move. New governors must get this point. If your governor is waffling about the manifesto months into the job, then be very clear, they haven't bought into the plan.

This is not too technocratic. (S)he might have been elected through a political process, but the largely non-political leadership demands of a governor call for a technocratic, or managerial, lens, if not technical skills. Which brings us to the second and third things to watch. Let's assume your governor sees the value of the CIDP and wants to roll it out. You can bet it will be full of projects cutting across the county. But, does it contain specific performance targets like the percentage of households with access to basic services under Article 43 (food, education, health, housing, water and sanitation and social security) or the number of jobs created through local economic development initiatives? That's what the law requires, so please find out.

Then, take a look at the projects. Is your governor throwing out the previous governor's projects and inserting his or her own, or is there a logical sense of, again, continuity? More specifically, is there a clear plan in the CIDP to complete existing projects while beginning new ones? If you can't see one, ask why.

Planning is one thing, reality is another. So, as the fourth, fifth and sixth things to watch, does your governor demonstrate an appreciation of the organisational, institutional and financial reality he or she is inheriting? If the first thing you observe is an avalanche of gurus, advisors or other persons of private interest around the governor's office, be warned. This is the "tone at the top" that could foster a hiring spree elsewhere.

If you can't find your county's organisation of government circular - essentially, the governor's thinking on how their government will be structured in line with devolved functions - by the time County Executive Committee members have been nominated for vetting at the County Assembly, ask some hard questions.

If there's little to no mention of a plan or strategy to deal with inherited pending bills or the collection of past revenue arrears, you may be right to begin asking whether or not your governor plans to be fiscally responsible. This proof will be evident in annual budget documents presented to you for public participation; from the annual development plan to the fiscal strategy paper to the annual programme-based budget estimates. By the end of this cycle, look for a budget that sticks to mandated 35:35:30 proportions between payroll, service delivery (operations and maintenance) and development spending.

Look closely. Does all of this sound boring? Yes. As the saying goes, "you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose". This doesn't mean there's no space for visionaries and innovators among our governors. That's the seventh and last thing to watch. You are looking for your governor not simply to work through the six basics above, but to use them as a platform not simply for creative thoughts but actionable innovations. So, the seventh thing to watch for is your governor's "X-factor".

The economic development strategy that grows the local revenue base is part of the county's journey to self-reliance. Remember, this 2022 election campaign gave us county economic charters and regional economic blueprints as a good base to start with. Additionally, the service delivery strategy grows local revenues from user satisfaction, and innovates through technology to ensure that county services are seamlessly accessible, available and affordable. That's the seven-part checklist for your governor's early days.

If devolution's third stanza is to bear fruits for Kenyans, it begins here. And it isn't just about your governor. It's about vigilance from you and me.