The timing of the Public Participation Bill sponsored by Senator Amos Wako couldn’t have been better with the rising interest by Kenyans to take part in the legislative process. Despite some shortcomings, the Bill forms a good basis to address concerns and doubts raised by many Kenyans who have termed public participation as just a formality. Reasons for this have been the time-constraints, inaccessible information and venues of participation, language barrier and an inefficient feedback mechanism just to mention a few.
The recent call by the Dr Matiang’i led Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government for public views on the controversial Huduma Bill 2019 disregarded the public participation rights as enshrined in several articles in the Constitution. As murmurs on the Bill started getting louder, the Ministry officially made the Bill public and days later, notified Kenyans of a public hearing that was to be held in two weeks. Two weeks that wouldn’t be enough for wide circulation of the notice to all Kenyans for them to familiarize themselves with the Bill before submitting their memoranda to their County Deputy Commissioners. Because of the technical nature of written memoranda, public hearings were made an alternative through which views by the public can be presented. But of what use are they, if they are confined to one location during a day when most Kenyans are attending to their day jobs? That aside, it didn’t escape Kenyans that the cart was put before the horse in the Huduma Namba context when a law governing the registration of persons came months after millions had already been pushed to share their personal information during registration.
The lack of clarity on the order of events in public participation is what the Busia legislator, Wako, seeks to address in Clause 4 of the Bill that spells out the principles that guide public participation. As it stands many are aggrieved by Ministry of Education which had very little consultation before rolling out the Competency-Based Curriculum which is now inviting views from the public to inform this new education system that has resulted in more confusion than clarity. It doesn’t help that the only channel officially employed is the newspaper that reaches a select few; those who can afford to buy it and those who have easy access to it in the first place.
This calls for diverse, innovative, creative, efficient and inclusive mechanisms to be put in place if at all every Kenyan is to enjoy this right. If it is a matter of reach, social places like places of worship, school, community centers are a low-hanging fruit that can be used to inform and collate views from locals on pertinent issues as stated in Clause 4 (2) of the Schedule of the Bill. Traditional and digital media channels are a welcome suggestion to conduct civic engagement to avoid excluding anyone.
The language barrier has proven to be a challenge when it comes to interpreting laws from English to Swahili, which are both national languages. This has left out a great segment of the Kenyan population who are conversant with their vernacular languages or mixed Swahili. To circumvent this, the Bill proposes, “Where the targeted participants are not conversant in the national languages, the responsible authority shall provide an interpreter for those participants who wish to make their remarks in their local language”. This shall mean national and county governments working closely to task counties with interpreting Bills in the local dialect that covers the larger part of the population in their respective regions.
“We can’t have oversight without public participation, and you cannot have participation without information,” said Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja during a debate on the County Oversight and Accountability Bill. His sentiments though captured in the county context are relevant on a national scale. Kenyans cannot fully hold leaders to account without information. Information, in this case, isn’t just what is given during the inception of a law but also feedback on the views presented by the public and the rationale by the relevant bodies on how final decisions were reached. This will, in turn, build public trust in public offices.
To demystify the notion that public participation is complex, you’re highly encouraged to pay attention to the famous speech by West Pokot County Governor, Paul Lonyangapuo to actually see that beyond the jokes he was actually informing his citizenry on the county budgets and spends.