Time to ask: Has devolution era contributed to better outcomes?

Meru County Governor Kawira Mwangaza after her impeachment victory on December 30, 2022. [ Elvis Ogina, Standard]

A decade since its launch, the argument for devolution’s potential as a game-changer for the nation remains as clear in many minds today as it was at its beginning. But that’s potential on paper.

Everyday Kenyans, while acknowledging progress to date, might have a different view on “vitu kwa ground” - the change expected in daily lives and livelihoods. What’s really changed, we ask?

Then, as we follow the “bad news” messaging on counties in the media, we should not forget that we deliberately adopted and pursued a “big bang” rather than gradual approach to rolling out devolution, and the resultant learning curve has been steeper than Point Lenana on Mount Kenya.

It is one of life’s ironies that this learning moment manifested itself so noisily in the impeachment business around Meru County, the mountain’s chief host, and Kenya’s fifth largest economy after Nairobi, Kiambu, Nakuru and Mombasa according to 2020 KNBS data (as an aside, only the governors of the top two have so far had their assembly impeachments confirmed by the Senate). 

But this is not an article on the outcome of this week’s Senate hearing which cleared Governor Kawira Mwangaza. Let’s instead treat the moment as year-end context on devolution (and Kenya) as we head into 2023. We will simplify this into four observations worthy of future consideration, noting that 2022 ushered in devolution’s third wave, after 2013-17 where we set up structures and 2018-22 when we did plenty of infrastructure.

Start with politics as resource distribution. On paper, we have a third round of county executives led by governors; then county assembly members (MCAs).

In practice, we have term-limited governors – new/first-term or second/final-term repeats (from second wave) and returns (from first wave) – and first, second or third-term MCAs (no term limits). What we heard at the Senate is not new – any governor will tell you that Step 1 in running your county is managing the assembly.

There is an added complication around political parties, particularly for independents, but also for “minority” governors facing “opposing” county assembly majorities. Having a battery of soft skills and emotional intelligence might be one thing, but how must a governor get their big plans and budgets approved without some “pork barrel” like ward development funds for the MCAs?

It isn’t just about those “MCA-specific funds”. If the governor’s “county project” (like a road, or water scheme) isn’t running through your ward or village, then the MCA “reserves the right to reject or amend the project” by changing the executive plan or budget that has already undergone bottom-up public prioritisation. Indeed, we have a convoluted process where the county executive prepares plans and budgets, subjects them to public input, then passes them on to the county assembly, who review these plans and budgets after also subjecting them to views from the public.

This is not a purely county problem; the same contradiction exists nationally, except that the national government (led by a powerful Treasury) plays it smoother and smarter.

Of course, the county troubles observed are not dissimilar from budget-making national MPs with constituency and other development funds that reduce incentives to represent, legislate or oversight given focus on their own cash kitties. Is there a flaw in our planning and budgeting – in national and county governments – that doesn’t trust the system to deliver, and then creates these “alternative” funds?

The second observation goes a different way, by harking back to the “first-year package” written about before. Treating the MCAs as important political context, this package spoke to seven opening imperatives for every governor. 

Hardware to software

The idea here is the third wave of devolution must move from hardware to software; from institutions and infrastructure to service delivery and local economic development; from roads, facilities and equipment to real progress for actual people.

What were these seven imperatives? One, a clear agenda in your 2023-2028 County Integrated Development Plan balancing the continuity of past progress with your ambitious manifesto. 

Two, a programme-based performance commitment (as required by law) around household-level outcomes on access to basic services under Article 43 (food, education, health, housing, water and sanitation and social security) and number of jobs created through local economic development.  Three, a project portfolio offering continuity (including project rationalisation) from predecessors. After these first 3/4 months, this is what every governor needs on his/her desk right now; ready for full launch in July 2023 as they carefully transition from the work delivered by those before them.

If we continue, four, five and six were about dealing with three realities – institutional, organisational and financial – before rushing into hiring people.

Like not simply naming county executive committee members for vetting before you have framed your organization of government and internalized the current state of your government’s functions, establishments and then staffing. Like dealing with inherited pending bills or revenue arrears only after appreciating the current shape of your budget in its payroll, service delivery and development proportions.  

Seven was the governor’s two part “X-factor”. First the economic development strategy to grow local revenue as part of the county’s journey to self-reliance (didn’t 2022 also give us county economic charters and regional economic blueprints?). Second the seamless service delivery strategy innovating through technology to further grow even more revenues from user satisfaction. Four months after making these largely technocratic points, it would be interesting to see what devolution looks like going into 2023 for the governors across our 47 counties right now.

This observation calls to mind the reality that your governor is a political technocrat, not just a politico.

Think of these first two observations as the demand and supply side of the Senate discourse.  The next two are more general, beginning with a third that sticks with the technical, but differently. 

As we enter 2023, what has devolution actually delivered?  Kenya’s socio-economic outcomes always show improvement over time across multiple dimensions, but there is a vagueness to understanding this improvement that raises broad questions that might need data specifics. What is the trend of socio-economic improvement over time (think of those earlier devolution indicators around access to basic services (food, education, health etc.) or new income opportunities)? Has there been a change in trend since devolution came into being? 

Or is this change the result of increased national government spending, county governments notwithstanding? Put summarily, to what extent has devolution contributed to better outcomes?

These are not idle questions when national spending on agriculture has been three times the sum total in counties when agriculture is devolved; or when health spending in the same period of time has been about the same between the two levels of government. Think of this is as the observation about “what” (the outcome) that is relatable back to the second on “whom” (counties, governors).

In a roundabout way, this brings us to a final observation. Between the Kenya Kwanza and Azimio la Umoja electoral campaign platforms, Kenyans were treated to a phalanx of promises to strengthen devolution.

From the former, we got promises to transfer all devolved functions to counties in six months, align parastatals with the devolved space, grow internal revenue generation capacity and improve shareable revenue predictability for counties. They are now the people in charge yet, even accepting that counties are “separate but equal”, we have not heard much publicly.

From the latter, we have just been warned through their recent 100-day scorecard about a “naked attempt to kill devolution”, although it is unclear what this means for a forthcoming 2023 that will apparently focus on a brand-new agitation for constitutional reforms. Lest we forget, Azimio were the 35 per cent allocation plus “one county, one product” plus ward development fund people.

The state of play gets more interesting when one reads in an equally recent 100-day poll by Infotrak that Kenyans rated “increased allocations to county governments to support selected economic activities” as second only to the Hustler Fund launch among six of President Ruto’s economic pledges, and fourth overall across the 12 main 100-day pledges they measured.  According to the poll, people from Central, Eastern and North-Eastern were happy on this metric. Talk about mixed messaging between our politics, polling and people!  But let’s conclude the story.

Those Senate proceedings offered thoughtful pointers for 2023. The cheeky poetic question to ask – above and beyond devolution - is if it’s Kenyans who are not ready for the constitution or the constitution that’s not ready for Kenyans. This is not a novel query; it has been asked before.

More prosaically in this “learning by doing” moment, devolved leaders must deliver results while balancing the political and technical.  Yet, in sketching and painting this third layer of Kenya’s devolution canvas, it would be a shame if artistry was left at the mercy of noisy political acrobatics.