Kenya has a firm legal and regulatory framework governing access to information. The Constitution of Kenya, 2010, Article 35, further elaborated by the Access to Information Act 2016, guarantees citizens the right to access information. Section 7(3) of PFM regulations, 2015, specifically demands that budget information be publicized within seven days.In addition to the national legislation, Kenya has ratified several regional and international treaties committing to upholding and promoting access to information. In this article, I focus on access to public budget information.
Access to information remains a prerequisite factor for meaningful public participation in budgets and policy decision processes. Citizens need information on how the government raises, allocates and spends money, as well as the quality of services delivered as outcomes. Further, there are provisions for public participation in the constitution and subsequent legislation. Despite the progress made in legal frameworks for access to information and public participation in the budget-making process in the last decade, the implementation has yet to be fully achieved at the county or national levels.
According to the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey 2019, Kenya scores 20% in its level of public participation in the budget process, and 50% in transparency. Although this is an improvement from the 2017 score of 47%, the level of transparency is still low. Sadly, the challenge of access to information is equally alive at the county level. IBP Kenya conducts a bi-annual survey that measures how much budget information counties publish on their website. The latest survey revealed that only Elgeyo Marakwet had all seven documents of the budget cycle available, Laikipia and West Pokot had published six out of seven documents and Kitui County had five out of seven documents available. Ironically, Nairobi and Mombasa – two of Kenya’s major urban counties – had only published three and two documents respectively. Kisumu, Migori, Lamu and Garissa counties published no documents. These statistics demonstrate that most counties still have a long road ahead to meet the requirements for public access to information.
How has COVID-19 affected Access to Information and public participation?
COVID 19 has had socio-economic impacts as the government directs its efforts in combating the spread of the virus. The public finance environment has changed drastically and if not observed, the principles of good financial practices may become a casualty. However, despite the glaring effects of COVID-19, the government processes such as the budget, are ongoing. The Constitution and the PFM Act are clear on the timelines and guidelines for the budget cycle, therefore the government, both national and counties, ought to proactively come up with alternative measures for ensuring public participation does not come to a halt. The already ailing public participation practice in most counties seems to be getting worse as efforts to avail required information on time become negligible. However, the big question should be, what are our stakeholders and community members doing about the situation? Should we just sit as we watch the fading of accountability, openness, access to information and transparency principles? The response is no, for all is not lost.
How persistence bridged the gap of access to information in Mombasa
‘Who sent you? Where do you work? Why do you want this information?’ These are popular questions that anyone attempting to request for information, particularly in Mombasa County, has encountered. Dissatisfaction with how public participation is conducted in Mombasa County sparked my bid to find a solution. The county has made efforts to implement public participation regulations, however, the full threshold of public participation is still a dream yet to come true. Public participation in the budget process has been conducted as an event rather than a process. One of the key concerns is untimely access to information. In the several public participation forums I have attended, I have witnessed as voluminous budget documents, even 100 pages or more, are read and summarized within two hours, and participants are randomly asked for their views. This leaves most of the participants with little or nothing to contribute since it is not easy to engage in something you have no idea of. Even the numbers are enough to confuse! This is why the law strictly prescribes for at least two weeks’ notice and availing of the required information before the forum.Regrettably, the department of devolution and public service administration, which is mandated to carry out civic engagement, has not fully exploited this mandate, and the role of educating the public about the budget process is left to civil society organizations.
I decided to be more proactive with the 2020/21 budget process in Mombasa County. I have been engaging and training a group of budget champions, most of who are journalists and community workers. Being cognizant of the budget timeline of September, the Annual Development Plan (ADP) was not availed and a public participation forum was not held. This was the beginning of my journey of making official requests for the ADP using an ATI tool. The requests, even though received, were followed by pure silence until the County Budget Review and Outlook Paper (CBROP) was due. The CBROP was not published in the respective County Assembly or executive websites! When I requested the document from a Member of County Assembly), he told me that he had a hard copy and I could arrange to pick it. However, my goal was not to pick up the CBROP -what about the 1.2 million residents in the county who have the right to read it?
There is a parable in the Bible of a persistent widow who kept demanding justice against her adversaries from a judge. The widow was eventually granted justice due to her persistence. I decided to be the persistent widow and kept demanding information from Mombasa County. On 14th February my team and I did another ATI requesting the ADP, CBROP and quarterly implementation reports to be uploaded on the website or provide a soft copy. Old habits die hard, and after 21 days, we still had not received the documents.
Our efforts were almost derailed when the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country, as the national government implemented immediate directives and measures to contain the virus. At this point, citizens were in panic mode in a quest to adapt to the new normal that was going to stay with us. Change of the strategy was the next step. With limited movement and measures such as physical distancing, it was not easy to access county offices to request information. The next course of action was to kill the snake with the stick at hand, and that meant using social media platforms where almost every duty bearer is a subscriber and an active user. As residents, we were still in the dark as far as budget information is concerned. In collaboration with the Coast Civil Society Organization Chair, we were contacted by the Star for an interview on the status of governance in the county. An opportunity presented itself and I had to lobby and advocate for access to information more so during the COVID-19 period. At this point, it was not a one-man battle but a joint effort with several actors in the county.
The power of social media platforms
On 21 May, the county issued a public notice on public participation through a memorandum on the proposed budget estimates 2020/21. This came after a long struggle, constant follow-up and tagging county leaders on social media asking for these documents, as well as writing to the speaker of the county assembly through the Chair of the Mombasa Governance thematic group. In recent years, the county has tended to indicate that the documents are available on their websites when that is not the case. Perhaps, this was the assumption that after all, no one was going to follow up. This already tells you how sometimes the public’s disinterest in holding leaders accountable can be taken as a strength by some duty-bearers.
After the notice was posted on the Mombasa County sub-county administration, Facebook, and twitter page, I visited the county assembly website just to confirm the availability of the document. I was not surprised to find that the Budget Estimates document was unavailable. The public notice and call for submission were the only documents available, along with the previous years’ budget estimates. It was a time to act and do something about the unavailability of the required budget documents. Section 13 (c), 17 (m) (n), and section 19 (1) of the Mombasa Public Participation Act, 2017, provides for guidelines on public participation and access to information. Despite having good policies and regulations at the county level, implementation remains is a big challenge.
Fortunately, three-quarters of Mombasa County leaders are on Facebook and Twitter, so despite the COVID-19 restrictions, we could still engage online. This had earlier proved effective after we had carried out a campaign dubbed’ Rudi Bunge campaign’ meaning ‘Resume to the assembly sessions campaign’ with other partners in Mombasa on 25th April 2020. Through the campaign, we had demanded all Members of County Assembly to reconvene their sessions to ensure oversight as well as approving the supplementary budget. After tagging the Members of the county Assembly s, our campaign was successful and a section of the county assembly committees reported back to work.
After confirmation that the Budget estimates were unavailable on the assembly’s website, I went back to the public notice, tagged the County Executive and the County Assembly and requested that they upload the document. Further, I took to my Twitter page as well as KeBudgetTalk page and posted the public notice while tagging more partners from Mombasa as well as the county authorities. Ke Budget Talk is a budget literacy and communication platform initiated to further public participation and enhance dissemination of budget related information during and afterCOVID-19.The discussion was picked positively and attracted interest from several stakeholders and civil society members in Mombasa. Since the day the public notice was publicized, I took screenshots daily whenever I visited the county assembly page for documentation on the untimeliness of access to information in the county. Importantly, it is advisable to engage with credible facts more so when advocating to seal the information gaps. To firm up the social media advocacy efforts for requesting information, we joined with partners in the governance network in Mombasa. A meeting was convened with the relevant county stakeholders and representatives from diverse groups in Mombasa, during which we presented our position paper and our demands for the budget process for 2020/21. As the way forward in the meeting, the county officials committed to uploading the information. Up until this time, I had kept a good record of the screenshots until the documents were uploaded on 28th May 2020 in the county assembly website. The picture below is a summary of the documentation that I had compiled on the journey to persistent requests and demand for Budget document information.
- Social media can be a good avenue for communication and demanding accountability from our leaders.
- Persistence, proactiveness and partnerships (3Ps) are required when pushing for an agenda.
- Credibility and documentation- it is always imperative to engage with facts that can be verified.
To attain meaningful participation, accurate, consistent, comprehensive and timely information is important. Best practice would be availing the required information to the citizens without any form of coercion and as stipulated by the law. The public and stakeholders have a role to play in demanding information and engaging fully in influencing decisions that affect them.
 Constitution of Kenya, 2010, article 2(6)
 PFMA 2012, CGA 2011