As we proceed to travel around Kenya speaking to the citizenry as well as government officials for our research project on Government Responsiveness in the Age of ICTs, a couple of interesting themes have been recurring in these discussions.
Currently in Kisumu after having conducted sessions with 25 participants, I can’t help but think about access to information and feedback mechanisms that the government avails especially in this age of a digital government.
What really is the impact of having access to relevant information by Kenyans? Do Kenyans trust the feedback mechanism provided by the government? What is the government’s responsibility in providing access to information and maintaining and effective feedback loop? Do Kenyans have a responsibility to keep the government accountable or does all responsibility lie on the government after we pay our taxes?
The Jubilee government in 2014 launched it’s ‘going digital’ campaign which has now resulted in a number of government services being provided online with sites like iTax and e-citizen gaining popularity amongst Kenyans who are online. For several reasons among them fewer queues, saving on transport, time and quicker service, Kenyans seem to prefer accessing government services online rather than visiting physical offices to be attended to.
During one of our focus group discussions in Kisumu a participant mentioned that he did not trust the government to provide Kenyans with information that he needs to know, just what they want Kenyans to know. He further explained what he meant by saying the government would never share information that would paint them in a negative light even if it was the truth. For this reason he doesn’t bother going to some of these government websites such as myGov that are used to keep Kenyans up to date of progress of the current government.
“They will never post what you need to know.”
“They would never post material that paints their image wrongly.”
As a social media enthusiast I regularly check my Twitter and Facebook profiles to keep up to date with current affairs, friends and family and select topics of interest. Government officials as well have not been left behind in creating social media profiles, where they update the citizenry on their activities and share crucial information.
In our analysis of the feedback loop, an interesting observation also brought up by a participant is that government representatives are rarely willing to answer the ‘hard questions’ online, yet they say they are available to interact with Kenyans online regarding any issues brought up. Rarely are they also willing to answer questions directly, especially those relating to graft, whistle blowing or reports of inadequate services.
“Tess: How does this affect you as a citizen?
Participant: it makes me want to give up asking questions.”
In this scenario we see the instance of government responsiveness having a negative impact on ardour, interest to keep the government accountable.
This then begs the question: Does the lack of government’s responsiveness have a hand in citizen apathy?
A simple google search of ‘Kenyans apathy’ yields pages upon pages in results of articles penning the issue of ‘voter apathy’ and general apathy of the Kenyan population in Kenya.
What is apathy? According to Merriam Webster:
noun ap·a·thy \ˈa-pə-thē\
- Lack of feeling or emotion
- Lack of interest or concern
“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men” – Plato
Kenyans together with the Government have a unique opportunity to use ICTs in solving the apathy conundrum and enhance accountability of governments.
By improving the feedback loop, more Kenyans will be encouraged to perform their role in keeping the Government in check and seeking services online.
“The discussion we should be having currently is how to get more Kenyans online.”
Kenya boasts of having an 89.7% internet penetration rate, a total of 39.6 million internet users with 29.6 million accessing the internet via mobile phone data subscriptions (source: CA). However, a common theme that has been brought up in Nairobi, Nakuru and Kisumu is that we need to re-evaluate the cost of going online as well as enhancing education around the use of ICT tools.
Next week we take our fact finding to Mombasa, stay tuned.
In Kenya bills undergo a process before they eventually become law i.e
- First Reading
- Second Reading
- Third Reading
- Presidential Assent
Parliament ensures publishing of bills in the National Gazette as well as online in form of a bill tracker that can be found here and a resource to keep abreast of house business here. Often you will also find proposed bills available online, cross posted on different government managed websites. This definitely locks out a great percentage of the population for reasons ranging from: internet access, literacy, disposable income as well as citizen apathy which greatly limits awareness of parliamentary proceedings. Moreover, opening up public participation to the greater public (without focus on particular stakeholders, organisations or citizen groups) would make managing the process too large a task and almost impossible for objective and valuable feedback.
Met with these challenges inhibiting effective public participation hereis a summary of methods the government has proposed to mitigate these challenges. These include appropriate timing to ensure constructive feedback, giving opportunity for all no matter how divergent the views are, ensuring a representative demographic participating in the process, counties creating a customised strategy to manage the structure of public participation. While these are fantastic ideas, the onus lies on the 47 counties in Kenya to ensure they are enforced. However, the question still remains amongst a public that is apathetic who is keeping them accountable?
In a paper outlining public participation in Kenya, Wanga Obora clearly outlines the role of civil society organisations not only act as watchdogs, but also an influence on public opinion in terms of supporting or being against local government policies and practices. They often initiate the formation of watchdog committees and citizen advisory groups and facilitate their activities.
Civil society organizations have for long played a significant role in enhancing a culture of participation across the world.
While appreciating the important role that civil society groups are playing in policy influence via bill amendment processes, it’s crucial to also note how social media has increased citizen participation in this process beyond traditional initiatives such as barazas (Local meetings convened by local government officials such as Village Elders, Assistant Chiefs, Chiefs, DOs, DCs, County Commissioners among others. In most cases, baraza refers to meetings convened by the first three). Social media platforms in Kenya especially Twitter and Facebook as well as platforms such as Google Docs are being used to provide feedback to parliament regarding bill proposals.
Taking the example of the ICT Bill proposed in 2016, this was the perfect illustration of how the internet was and is currently being used in Kenya to enhance civic engagement. Using the hashtag #KillTheICTBill Kenyans on social media shared their opinion and feedback on the bill that was proposed. Using co created documents on Google Docs we could also see individuals having an easier method to contribute their voice to the bill.
However, even with these opportunities for individuals to participate in the process, civil society groups still have a bigger voice mainly attributed to the fact that they have access to resources and contribute an aspect of already established ‘organised’ public participation that individual citizens have not yet mastered. Moreover, county governments heavily rely on Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to provide initiatives focused on increasing citizen participation. It’s important to note however, most of these CSOs are reliant on donor funding which presents a huge risk for sustainability.
Some statistics (2015)
“Only 5.7 percent of Kenyans have participated in citizen consultation forums at the county level in the past one year. Only 17 percent of Kenyans are aware of how much funds have been allocated to their counties. Sixty-eight percent of Kenyans have major concerns regarding the way local governments are run. However, 72 percent of them believe that as individuals they can only do little or nothing to influence Government,” Cornelus Oduor, CEO of the Centre for Enhancing Democracy and Good governance read out.
This clearly depicts a gap in understanding of the responsibility as well as power that rests in citizen groups, that in turn affects effectiveness of citizen participation in Kenya. To mitigate this, a consortium of civil society groups pledged almost $100 M to strengthen public participation in county governments.
It is clear CSOs are at the centre of enhancing public participation in both national and county governments.
“Real citizen participation is about the ability to influence outcomes,” said Wanjiru Gikonyo, head of The Institute for Social Accountability, “and it’s both beneficial to the county governments and to citizens; it’s the root of success.”
How far are we from realising this as a reality in Kenya? To what extent are citizens influencing policy today? What has evolved in the past 2 years (since 2015) to enhance citizen participation? What are the current good case practices in counties to enhance public participation? What is locking out widespread public participation in most counties?
These are questions we hope to answer as a result of the work of our study trying to understand how policy is influenced in Kenya.
The question of devolution also brings in an interesting shift in how the legislative process plays out in Kenya. Under the devolved system of government, we now have the Senate and National Assembly at the national level and the County Assemblies at the county level as the primary legislative organs. Has the devolved function of legislation impacted development and ensured harmony between laws developed at the county level as well as the national level as was expected of devolution?
Stay tuned as we ask and eventually answer these questions.