Article 10 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 declares that participation of the people is a cardinal principle of governance at the national and county levels.
Additionally, Article 35 provides that every citizen has a right of access to information. But for citizens to play their rightful role in governance and hold public institutions to account, including at the devolved level, they must be empowered with timely, relevant and adequate information.
One of the objectives of devolution is to enhance the participation of the people in the decision making affecting them (Article 174).
Some of the most critical decisions affecting the citizens touch on the management of public funds and allocation of resources for development. It is therefore paramount that wananchi have a say in how their money is utilized by public institutions tasked with such roles.
The Constitution further stipulates that there shall be openness and accountability including public participation in all aspects of public finance. One of the most important public finance functions is the formulation, implementation and audit of county budgets.
With devolution now into its ninth year, this is a good time to reflect on the role of citizens in public finance and especially budget-making at the county level.
We should be asking, have the counties established functional participatory systems for wananchi? Are county budgets citizen-friendly? Is the budget-making process open to public scrutiny?
Despite the existence of a robust legal framework underpinning public participation in budget development at the county level, there is strong evidence suggesting that many of the devolved units are far from achieving effective public participation in the process. This means the ability of those participating to influence the outcome of the process.
A report titled Kenya County Budget Transparency Survey 2020 reveals a bleak picture that majority of counties are not providing sufficient budget information required for meaningful citizen engagement.
Several counties failed to report on how exactly they had engaged the public in coming up with the crucial fiscal document. The average transparency score for all the counties was dismal, signalling poor or lack of involvement of residents in the process.
Apart from the Constitution, other laws such as the County Governments Act, Public Finance Management Act also require a certain level of transparency in county fiscal activities. Lack of access to information was singled out as a major bottleneck yet the Constitution jealously protects this right.
Worse still, budget reporting is shrouded in opacity, minimizing opportunities for the public to engage in meaningful dialogue on issues related to their resources are spent.
Also, most of the information provided to the public is not comprehensive thus denying citizens the opportunity to constructively influence the fiscal side of policy making. All counties under-performed in the transparency index, a measure of the quality of disclosure of budget information to the public regarding the budget, with none scoring over 81 out of 100 points.
One can easily understand why corruption thrives in such an environment and it is not surprising that counties have become a hotbed of bribery, nepotism, patronage, embezzlement and other malpractices around misuse of public resources.
As we head to the elections in August, we should only elect candidates for the office of governor who demonstrate the capacity and willingness to engage, we the people, fully in the making decisions on how our money will be spent.
For example, the candidates should make public how each county ward and village will participate in the crafting of the county budget and especially how special interest (women, youth, persons with disability) and marginalized groups will be roped in.
The gubernatorial contenders should commit to publishing monthly budget implementation progress reports and make these widely available to the county residents in the language they understand including vernacular.
The candidates should also explain clearly how they will carry out regular civic education on the budgetary process in every corner of the county.
They must demonstrate with facts and figures how each project will benefit the residents at the village, ward and county level, how much has been spent, but most importantly, ensure no project is initiated without the consent of the people affected.
The persons to be elected governors should be individuals of high integrity and credibility, possess a resolute commitment to fighting and eliminating corruption in the counties once elected, and must pledge in writing to uphold the right to public participation and access to information in every decision they make when elected.
That way, we shall inject greater accountability and transparency in the way public funds and resources are managed at the county level, thus curtailing the temptation by unscrupulous leaders to hide information from the citizenry.
The views expressed in this article don’t necessarily represent KBC’s opinion.