By James Muraguri
Public participation is a phrase that has gained prominence since the promulgation of the new constitution. In meetings I have attended across the counties, participants feel that the county governments are not involving them in decision-making. It is a cardinal requirement by the Constitution of Kenya 2010 for the government to involve the people in every decision it makes.
Section 104 of the County Governments Act directs the county governments to involve non-state actors in the county planning process. Section 137 of the Public Finance Management Act (PFM Act) strengthens this provision further. The PFM Act puts emphasis on the County Budget and Economic Forum (CBEF). The emphasis is on the CBEF as a mechanism for consultation with the public on matters of budgeting, economy, and public finance management.
County Budget and Economic Forum (CBEF) is very elaborate
While scouting for ways and means in which the public should participate in governance, I have not found any other elaborate means as the CBEF. The International Budget Partnership, in its 2015 paper, “Devolution in Kenya: The Establishment of County Budget and Economic Forums,” notes that the CBEFs are the only specific, legally required mechanism for public participation in the budget.
It is unfortunate that the county executive is undertaking the participation process without the support of bodies like CBEF. It looks like a mere formality to involve these bodies in order to meet the criteria for public participation. Some counties have put the call for public participation in the national press with no reference to the materials they shall subject to public scrutiny.
The instance of putting the call out for public participation is commendable. However, using a body like CBEF would go a long way to make the participation process effective and meaningful. CBEF members should have access to these documents early. This would enable them to provide a strategic direction to their members on how to engage with the county government. After all, CBEF is a quasi-part of the executive in the budget making process.
The National Treasury calls for public participation and provides the draft documents for the people to have a basis for engagement. This guides them on the possible resources that the country has. We should expect this minimum from the counties as well.
Therefore, what is the situation concerning the County Budget and Economic Forums?
The nomination, composition and functioning of CBEFs remains a challenge. Without a national framework on public participation, the CBEF steps in. CBEF presents the ideal opportunity to strengthen the engagement between the county governments and the county residents.
The PFM Act notes that CBEF representatives should be persons representing interest groups in the county. These groups are embedded in the county and actively involved in driving the county agenda. CBEF members should possess adequate knowledge on matters of budget and economics. These are clear indications that this should not be an opportunity to reward political cronies. It should be an opportunity to involve the county residents strongly in the budget making process.
The county executive holds sway in the appointment of the CBEF members. Yet, it should know that the support it gives to the CBEF could be instrumental in ensuring that people feel their reach within the county. Agencies like Kenya Private Sector Alliance, Kenya Chamber of Commerce and Kenya Association of Manufacturers, jointly with other actors working on entrenching devolution, should remain on the forefront in ensuring the representation of interest groups in the CBEFs is firm.
Most counties have established their CBEFs. However, the operational independence of the CBEFs has come under scrutiny. This is despite elaborate guidelines by the Commission on Revenue Allocation. This raises the question whether county governments have real interest in the proper functioning of the forums.
County Budget and Economic Forums (CBEFs) and meaningful participation
Therefore, will we see meaningful participation of the county residents in the budget process? Will the county governments provide the CBEFs with resources for engagement with the stakeholders they represent?
Indeed, we expect to see meaningful engagement between the county residents and their government. This will occur by ensuring that resources the county governments allocate for public participation commensurate with the task.
The budget preparation process with a focus on the County Fiscal Strategy Paper (CFSP) and the Executive Budget Proposals come into play. With these documents, the process should indicate how the CBEF should engage with the public. This should include how to monitor the effectiveness of public participation.
In the end, all these will provide interest groups with the opportunity to engage with the counties effectively on the budget process without political manipulation.
The writer is the Chief Executive Officer at the Institute of Public Finance Kenya.
(First published on Muraguri’s LinkedIn. Edited for clarity.)