Let an independent office spearhead public participation

Public participation forum in Kakamega County on February 16, 2023. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The Constitution at Article 1 enthroned all sovereign power in the people and made public participation a mandatory provision.

Article 10 of the Constitution lists public participation as one of the national values and principles of governance. It further requires Parliament to facilitate public participation and involvement in the legislative process.

Public participation is defined as the process by which citizens and stakeholders get involved in the conduct of public affairs to influence decisions, policies, legislation and provide oversight in service delivery, development and governance matters.

Public participation has become the centre-stage of the law-making process and major development projects. In fact, any law or development project that fails to carry out public participation is likely to be quashed if challenged in a court of law.

To avoid possible legal suits, Parliament, Senate, ministries, county governments and other public entities have religiously been placing adverts in the media inviting views of citizens on proposed laws or projects.

Unfortunately, public participation has increasingly become a window-dressing session just to meet the constitutional threshold due to lack of a legal framework.

The meetings are adjudicated by the same proposers of the intended law or project who already have taken a position to legitimise decisions. The noted shortcomings in current practice of public participation are lack of standardisation with each government entity having their own template, poor communication on venue, date and time.

Another gap is lack of transparency due to non-existent feedback mechanism responses presented by citizens and impact thereof. These deficits require civic education which has been missing forcing citizens to stay away when invited to the advantage of many law or project proposers who are guaranteed minimal opposition in the process.

Ten years since the promulgation of the Constitution, it is surprising no law has been enacted to operationalise public participation despite the Constitution being citizen-centred. The omission is suspiciously designed to afford ease by avoiding the rigour of public scrutiny which may compel amendment or dropping of unpopular laws after incorporating citizen views.

As the country gears towards a constitutional moment, public participation should be among the top agenda to fix the glaring gap to ring-fence the citizens' views. An independent office for public participation should be anchored in the Constitution and operationalised through an Act of Parliament.

The office should be well-resourced and insulated from interference from any quarters. The office should be charged with organising all public participation fora, moderating, receiving views, analysing responses and announcing verdicts based on legally set threshold.

Before politicians create additional counties, split constituencies, raise taxes or start another white elephant project, let citizen views be safeguarded with a legal framework vested in an independent office. Current window-dressing public engagements fall short of the aspiration of Kenyans to be involved in decision making. You can't be a referee and a player at the same time.

-Mr Mwinamo is a financial auditor. [email protected]