Since 2008, The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA) has acted as a bridge between committed communities and duty bearers. Its focus has been on refining policy through participatory methods, for the enhancement of good governance in local development in Kenya. In its early days, when it was known as the Community Development Fund (CDF) Accountability Project, it grounded its work in three key advocacy objectives: the promotion of good local governance, the promotion of people’s participation in local governance, and the promotion of freedom of information. It sought to uplift the livelihoods of the poor and marginalized in particular, grounding itself in local government’s effective management of CDFs as a human rights issue.
The tools and mechanisms for this kind of local engagement were weak and have strengthened through TISA’s responsive and collaborative approach to policy implementation. TISA is able to identify emerging issues quickly, and support stakeholders by presenting their issues to local officials. TISA is also adaptive to the needs of stakeholders, as in two recent interventions in Embakasi on an environmental issue and Kileleshwa on an infrastructure issue (both Nairobi neighborhoods). Through 11 years of focus on governance, TISA has built up considerable expertise and networks in local governance, participatory governance, advocacy strategies, capacity building and practice learning while growing in experience and developing capacity-building tools and curricula in these areas.
TISA’s work is to address local government’s challenge of getting useful and timely information to and from stakeholders. Despite Kenya’s constitutional and legal requirements for public participation as well as the enormous benefits to be derived from it, there has not been a structured system of conducting public participation.
How did they do it?
TISA Trust was inspired by the work of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an Indian social movement and grassroots organization best known for its successful struggle for the Right to Information Act. When MKSS came to Kenya to conduct a social audit in the coastal town of Mombasa, TISA picked up the methodology and identified local institutions who were already monitoring service delivery. TISA interviewed 10 such institutions for suitability and worked with them to build their capacity, with a goal of integrating social audits into their work. A social audit learning group was then established to deepen and expand the principles.
At the beginning, the theory of change was that the social audits would strengthen accountability by leaders to citizens. A social audit is a way of measuring, understanding, reporting and ultimately improving an organization's social and ethical performance. However, the learning group concluded that the Indian audit model could not achieve commensurate public accountability in Kenya, because the legal framework was skewing power toward political leaders and not allowing citizen voices to be heard.
During the time when TISA was championing social audits, the process of creating a new Kenyan Constitution was ongoing. Based on the lessons it had gathered with working with local governments, civil society and the public on social audits, TISA made contributions which were integrated into the 2010 Constitution and heavily shaped the devolution laws.
After the passing of the new Constitution in 2010 which devolved government functions to the county level, TISA began working with counties to develop bylaws to rationalize the devolution policies, and with communities on how to practice their democratic rights.
TISA also took on the role of linking public-participation policy with practice by training local civil society to work with citizens while linking up with the county department heads. The initial model was to work with partners who were using the social audit learning book. However, it was challenging finding institutions that had both the capacity (including size, skills and sustainability) and the quality grassroots relationships at the county level to spread the work. Territoriality was also a challenge because each partner institution wanted to be seen as the key civil society player by donors.
Civil society institutions in different counties have ramped up capacity to work with county governments, where they implement the policies and TISA works with organisations to be more effective. The success of this model was dependent on the local civil society partners.During that period, TISA also supported informal organisations by helping them write proposals to get their projects funded by county budgets through the County Integrated Development Plan mapping exercise.
TISA’s work now supports an emerging legal framework around public participation. Nairobi City County passed the Public Participation Act 2015 which commenced in March 2016. Also in 2016, the Ministry of Devolution and Planning and the Council of Governors took input from TISA and other stakeholders to publish County Public Participation Guidelines. TISA now works to educate citizens on the provisions in law and recommendations in the guidelines. They promote closer collaboration, consultation and communication between counties, civil society and citizens in policy formulation, integrated planning, budgeting and service delivery.
At the national level, the 2018 Public Participation Bill’s principal object is to provide a framework for effective public participation, the foundation of devolution. Accordingly, all public processes ranging from policy making, legislative process and ultimate decision making, now legally require the participation of the people of Kenya.
How is it going?
TISA’s early efforts on transparency of public information contributed to the introduction of social audit methodology in Kenya. This gave them legitimacy with the state to be credible contributors to the Constitution. They have also worked with several communities in Nairobi to be more effective in their engagement with the Nairobi City County. Residents have convened meetings with the County on various issues and have formalized organizing and seeing the physical and communication structure improvements.
According to those involved, the thrust of TISA’s work has resulted in structural change and power shifts, with the County knowing that any action or inaction will solicit feedback from empowered and informed stakeholders.
TISA found it challenging to feed input into the constitutional process and work on realizing public participation objectives, due to a hostile environment for devolution at that time. In the early years of devolution, there was a draw from the national government to retreat to centralized authority and reduce the power of county actors. County actors had to find their footing to take up public participation and refrain from exercising governance principles in the same manner as under the centralized structure. TISA, therefore, spent more time defending the constitution rather than implementing it.
Focusing on Nairobi City County, they advocated for the County to do citizen engagement at the Ward level, working with County staff, citizens and other stakeholders to come up with a policy for that engagement. The County didn’t pass the policy, but some of the groups took on a life of their own and became registered associations e.g. Embakasi and Kileleshwa Ward Associations.
County officials admit that they still struggle with optimizing different media for transmitting timely information. The Public Participation Act outlines the terms of public notices, but these are not aligned with the contemporary ways the public receives information. For example, for a recent budget hearing a social media post was made on a Wednesday for a meeting the following Monday at 10 AM. This short notice and the timing of the meeting effectively excludes people who aren’t paid to attend. Similarly, the county engages a handful of resident associations but is not optimising its networks, leaving to chance that residents will give thorough reading and response to policy proposals hundreds of pages long. While documents are posted on the County’s website, officials have received complaints on the complications with accessing a facility to review them online and the difficulty finding documents on the webpage. Although they are within the letter of the notifications law, they are not always fulfilling the spirit of the law.
Some public officials view public participation as a perfunctory exercise in a constitutional process. There is also a culture of believing that information belongs to the government and should not be fully accessible by everyone. The work of TISA and others is about changing this belief and helping officials see that participation makes it easier to get the public on board for sustainable development, and does not have to be a disruption. There are positive models, including Makueni County’s public engagement efforts.. However, some officials in Nairobi indicated there is a fear among their colleagues of empowering citizens, because it calls for a higher level of accountability. While Nairobi City County scores relatively well in objective criteria on public participation, Nairobi is still regressive in terms of the public’s ability to influence outcomes and access meaningful information, and its leadership culture which undermines the basis for democratic processes.
For this reason, citizens and civil society still view working with the government as a risky venture, as it is perceived that they could experience state/county capture and a waste of time. AfriCOG’s recent State Capture Report argues that in some counties, including Nairobi, there are two governments in operation: the formal rational government and a shadow government that influences all financial decisions. Real power lies in the latter, and one of its strategies is to demobilize accountability by engaging residents in meaningless exercises with the formal government that will not yield results because decisions are made by the shadow government, the report concludes When leadership culture is closed and designed to extract state resources, citizens are likely to get very little outcome.