Public participation in governance has been a reverberating issue since the promulgation of the constitution on August 27th 2010. While the Constitution did not expectedly give, the modus operandi of realizing it, it offered broad principles that should define good governance, transparency and accountability in public affairs. The Buntwani conference held earlier this week was therefore very critical in shaping this issue with a view to find ways, already being practiced, and new ones that could afford a lead to a better citizenry and service delivery.
Article 1 of the Constitution informs that the sovereignty of the republic belongs to the people who can exercise it directly and indirectly. Public participation is therefore backed by law in this article and complementary ones like Article 35 on the right to information.
Participation of the public in their affairs can take various forms: bills, policies, vetting of nominated officials, shaping of development agenda and budgetary oversight. When these issues are to be addressed, the public can participate in them either through public hearings or written memoranda.
The inaugural Buntwani conference underscored that web and mobile platforms built for use in citizen engagement efforts have been fairly successful. It was clear that ICT and innovation can and will play a role in ensuring county service delivery, citizen engagement, accountability and transparency.
ICT tools like the mobile phone make governance related information easily accessible and help people overcome the challenges of time and distance that often hinder or limit their participation. Many platforms geared at engaging national and county governments on various issues from budgets to health and education were showcased.
For instance, Mzalendo the web portal seeks to promote public participation by providing information on Parliament. It was interesting to note that Hon. Kenneth Okoth who was also present in the workshop periodically checks Mzalendo for his profile to ensure his details are well captured. He challenged other legislators to take advantage of the platform to enhance their visibility and Parliamentary work.
Regardless of the possibilities ICT tools offer in raising engagement, some challenges still need to be addressed for public participation in governance processes to be a reality. First, civic education needs to be carried as the public still does not understand the roles of the elected officials at the national and county levels. Secondly, speaking truth to power has to be promoted as a value as most Kenyans find it disrespectful and this entrenches the client-patron mentality. Thirdly, elected officials tend to be self-interested and make themselves inaccessible to the public during their term in office.
That notwithstanding, the opportunities for collaboration between government, civil society groups, media and technology experts to further the citizen engagement agenda are immense. There is need to tap into the increasingly youthful voter base, which is very tech-savvy by capitalizing on mobile phone applications and social media platforms to share accurate governance information. Initiatives like the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and data-backed journalism can also help further this agenda. Leveraging the power of radio cannot be underplayed either. The success of raising public participation in governance lies in these worthy efforts.