Participatory Budgeting: “Is it a perennial box ticking exercise?”

By Mulwa Kasangya

Friday 30th April 2021 marks the deadline for the National Treasury and the 47 County Treasuries in Kenya to submit the annual budget estimates of expenditure for FY 2021/22 to the National assembly and the respective county assemblies for deliberations and approval as the first stage of the budgeting process nears the end. This season provides a critical budget moment for the public to participate in the budgeting process and receive feedback from government. Previously, public views were incorporated in the budget decisions that had been already made. Therefore, it is a season for reflections on exactly what public participation in the budget making entails. Also, to ascertain whether there’s disparity between what is on paper (legal and policy frameworks) and what is on the ground (the practice); or it is same business as Kenyans popularly say ‘vitu kwa ground ni different’. A phrase in a mixture of Swahili and English meaning that in Kenya, the practice is always different from how it is written in policies, laws and other guiding documents.

Public participation is a democratic right and a key driver for meaningful participatory budgeting. According to the people-powered organization (a worldwide hub for participatory democracy), participatory democracy enables community members to make the policy decisions that affect their lives, together with the government[1]. Research shows that participatory democracy can increase understanding of and trust in government, inspire civic learning and leadership, plus direct resources to communities with greater needs[2]. For example, there was a social media uproar from Kenyans on Twitter on Easter Monday 2021 where Kenyans expressed their dissatisfaction over the increased borrowing where the citizens asked the International Monetary Fund to cancel public debt worth $2.34 billion it had approved for Kenya.  This is an indication of trust issues by the citizens as most of them did not believe the government would use the borrowed funds to solve their problems.  Besides this, participatory budgeting promotes civic respect to her citizens by opening the door and making the process more inclusive and proactive on the governance process. Lastly, participatory budgeting promotes integrity by making the process open and transparent which is likely to reduce corruption.

Participatory budgeting is a democratic right and at its best, is a powerful tool for leveling inequality. This democratic right is enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 under Article 1(1-4) which states that all sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised either directly or indirectly through their democratically elected representatives. Article 12 of the constitution of Kenya provides citizens with the opportunity to participate in the budgetary process and this is further emphasized in the Public Finance Management Act 2012. Participatory budgeting is anchored in the Public Finance Management Act of 2012 that says “there shall be openness and accountability, including public participation in financial matters.”

Essentials of a functional participatory budgeting system

The best practices of participatory budgeting include grand deliberation whereby citizens have the legitimacy to discuss and weigh mixed formats to come up with specific priorities and outlined the purpose of public participation in print and local media to the target audience.

In addition, participatory budgeting should give participants enough time to learn and weigh evidence to come up with informed decisions. Moreover, offer equal opportunity and privacy to avoid any chances of victimization after participating in the process. Lastly, the process should be transparent. This is done by tabling budget documents and evidence gathered through videos, submissions, and audios publicly; of which, this should have a monitoring and evaluation mechanism to assess the process from the inputs, outcomes, and outputs and help towards making informed decisions.

Kenyan financial year runs from July 1st to June 30th. The budget process at both levels of government follows the four key stages: formulation, approval, implementation, and audit. Each year, both levels of government engage citizens in brainstorming ideas and proposals, to build consensus on the priorities. In the months of April and May, both levels of government formulate budget estimates. The Budget Estimates are among the most important budget documents in national and county governments’ annual budget cycle. In essence, they are the final document in the budget process, setting the total spending at the level of ministries/departments and programs. According to the PFM Act 2012, budget estimates should be tabled in the National Assembly (National Government) and County Assembly (County Government) by April 30th . These estimates result in the appropriation act which is read by the CS treasury after parliament’s approval in a summarized budget speech. 

A recent scan of the state of public participation at county level, reveals that in the current month of April 2021, various counties have scheduled public participation for the 2021/22 budget estimates.  Kisumu County issued a call for public participation which is a good Public Finance Management practice[3]. From the public notice, the county has indicated that the draft copy is available on the website, yet it has not been uploaded a week after the notice. The trend is the same in most counties. A quick online search on 15th April 2021 revealed that, it is only Mandera County which had published and publicized the document in line format on their website. Public participation with limited published and publicized budget documents is similar to traditional arranged marriages where the bride and groom are primarily selected by individuals rather than the couple themselves since the citizens have limited information for meaningful contribution. The second schedule of the PFM Act 2012 obliges the county government to publish and publicize budget estimates in the format required and on a timely basis by the law for effective public engagement. On March 8th, 2021, the Star newspaper reported limited public participation at the national government during the Budget Policy Statement formulation whereby the National treasury published the draft copy on January 25, 2021 and gave one week for public participation. Institute of Public Finance – Kenya, CEO James Muraguri states that “The National Assembly has made a wrong turn by ignoring public input on the Budget Policy Statement (BPS) 2021”. The National Assembly received the copy on February 14, 2021, it was reviewed by the Budget and Appropriations Committee, tabled, and approved on March 4, 2021, without calling for public contribution[4].

In conclusion, Article 201 of the Constitution of Kenya highlights the principles of public finance, and sub-article (a) clearly states that there shall be openness and accountability, including public participation in financial matters. Kenyan citizens have two weeks to exercise their democratic right in giving inputs in this year’s budget estimates. It is however important to understand that the exercise requires a team play with the government on the demand side and citizens on the supply side.  

Therefore, counties should come with best-practice standards and build a body of knowledge like the Makueni County Public participation handbook which outlines the scope, roles, and various levels of engagement and has some sections translated into local dialects for her citizens to get the gist. In addition, they should allocate a budget towards effective public participation and develop an independent monitoring and evaluation platform; tasked with observation and timely reporting of the process. Moreover, counties should regularly invest in skill and capability advancement of the key stakeholders involved in the process from the executive, county assembly, civil society organizations, and other interest groups. Lastly, with the escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent stringent public health protocols, county governments should embark on the virtual issue of digitalization, democracy, and participation by including a zoom meeting link in their subsequent engagements.


[1] https://www.peoplepoweredhub.org/about/about-participatory-democracy

[2] https://www.peoplepoweredhub.org/about/about-participatory-democracy.

[3] https://www.kisumu.go.ke/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/FINAL-Public-Notice_BUDGET-EST_2021-22.pdf

[4] https://www.the-star.co.ke/business/kenya/2021-03-08-experts-fault-mps-in-2021-budgetmaking-process/



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