By Tabitha Marion
Public participation unquestionably sits at the heart of the Constitution as a national value, but whether it holds the same gravity with the public concerned is a matter of doubt. How the government makes decisions, what prompts them and why they make such decisions has been a concern for most people.
One afternoon, I spent time in Kakamega Town Market; I found it bizarre that nearly all vendors blamed the government for everything bad under the sun. This included high standards of living, and budget making, catering to not what they needed or the services the public need the most. I tried using my bargaining power to purchase a good, and a young vendor told me, “Maisha imepanda na serikali inatumia pesa vile inataka, tufanye aje sisi wananchi wadogo…”
The blame may still be on how the government functions due to historical mismanagement of public resources that turned the public off and crushed their expectations. On the other hand, however, the public needs to understand that silence or ignorance would not solve anything at all; blame games are just games and not any reasoning brought to the table. Public participation is one of the effective ways to ensure that the people are involved and accountability, transparency and efficiency in service delivery is enhanced.
Public participation is fundamental to the functioning of a democratic system of governance, and it is similarly crucial to the citizens themselves. Largely, public participation ensures sustainable development in a particular area. For instance, at a public participation forum in Lurambi Sub-County, Kakamega County, I attended, the people could air developmental issues in their sub-county and make a track until the issues were attended to.
Public input enables the government to make better decisions that answer current needs of the community. The young vendor talked of “serikali kutumia pesa vile inataka…” when he could have influenced the government’s decision by participating in its decision-making process. If it is the budget-making process, for example, it follows several phases that involves public input. If the community takes the initiative to be part of such processes, then monitoring decisions would be easier.
The case of democracy and good governance that involves transparency and accountability is achievable through public participation. When the public is informed and effectively takes part in the activities of the government, there will be accountability. In this case, the people follow through on what is happening, how it is happening and why. It can also enhance legitimacy and build mutual trust and commitment between duty-bearers and the public- a thing lost in this era of corruption and embezzlement of funds.
Public participation is a great tool, fostering sustainable provision of services and improved agency understanding of the community’s contributions. The government is there to work for the community, but the question is how they work for non-responsive people. The community needs a voice, and the participation forums have made a leeway for that. Just as biblically recorded, “Ask and it shall be given…”
Public participation has been there because it was one of the key objectives of devolution under the new Constitution of Kenya 2010, but it has not been effective. It is with dire demand that it should gain acceptance and effectiveness, especially among the citizen members.
The public has to understand their constitutional right to make public participation effective. It is a citizen power that the leaders value and accept. Maybe before we take to the streets in the spirit of ‘demonstrating’, we could engage first in the process and try to negotiate our deals with the leaders we voted in. Silence has no defense. There is a need to talk and negotiate with leaders to participate in decision-making responsibilities.
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are also a great tool towards making public participation effective. CSOs are in all counties championing various issues that affect citizens from the lowest levels in communities. In Kakamega, I have interacted with CSOs during forums held for CSOs to revise the county’s Annual Development Plan (ADP) and County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP). Through such forums, they could hold the government accountable concerning what the community needs at the grass root level. An example is the Girls to Women Organization, which champions sexual and reproductive health, among many other issues in the community it is involved with. The public working with CSOs is an added advantage towards the effectiveness and quality of public participation.
A simple way to make public participation effective is by learning about the mechanisms and spaces in which public participation might take place. Mechanisms and spaces may vary. For instance, Kakamega County had its public participation for the Department of Economic Planning and Investments for the CIDP 2023-2027 through an online forum, where on the other hand, a forum can be physically held in specified areas, and for this, a letter is sent as a public notice with the venues. If such information is received prior, the public can be prepared for that and even plan their attendance.
This is a clarion call to the public who have heard and even talked of democracy; it is not just a word, it means that the power of self-governance has been given to the people to enhance their participation in the exercise of the powers of the state and in making decisions that affect them. As the government makes public participation policies and manuals to strengthen engagements with communities across the country, people should take part. If platforms are in a place, then the public should do its best to take part.
Maybe after we have taken part effectively in such decision-making processes, we can sit and answer the question, who drives the market? Who decides where and how finances are used? Who decides where or how services are offered? But until then, the blame game is not helpful.