I have been part of more aborted “open” revolutions (open data, open government, etc.) than I care to count. There has been considerable fanfare around a number of national initiatives in the past year or so, some sponsored by the Office of the Deputy President. As far as I can tell, these have all come to naught.
Part of the problem is typical of such initiatives: They attempt to engineer government interest in openness via prestige, rather than building on domestic interests and efforts. When people are driven mainly by the show of openness rather than its actual value, the resulting “broadcast openness” is shallow and unsustainable.
One place where we have reason to be a bit more optimistic is Elgeyo Marakwet County, which became one of only 14 subnational governments to join the global Open Government Partnership (OGP) last year. Why do I say so? To be sure, I believe that Elgeyo Marakwet County is also driven in part by the appeal of prestige and the easy of broadcast openness. However, the county was also experimenting with ways of opening up even before the option to join OGP was available.
I am wary of general explanations of government commitment to particular agendas, and as I have written in this column before, I don’t think much of the concept of political will. Nevertheless, my experience of Elgeyo Marakwet has been that the county has an unusually committed group of civil servants and political leaders who are willing to test new ideas and to learn from experience. These ideas include, among others, equitable distribution through a legally sanctioned formula at the county level, and quasi-deliberative approaches to debating the county’s annual development plan.
Both of these approaches pre-date OGP. I am not sure why or whether it is sustainable, but I see the county’s commitment to OGP as arising from this general atmosphere, rather than purely out of a desire for prestige and funding.
What exactly has Elgeyo Marakwet County committed to do through OGP in its action plan launched two weeks ago? The plan has four main commitments. The first relates to formalisation of mechanisms for public participation, but also includes further piloting of innovative approaches. The second commitment relates to providing citizens the tools they need to participate effectively in budgeting.
Among the tools committed to are a user-friendly budget format, publicly accessible sector working groups, and a reference price list to help citizens assess different proposals for how to spend the county’s capital budget. The third commitment involves making project implementation information, including contracts, available to the public for enhanced monitoring.
The final commitment aims to harvest citizen feedback on county performance more systematically through readily available platforms such as WhatsApp, and to enhance government-citizen dialogue.
These are ambitious commitments, particularly in an election year. All of them must be met by the end of 2017, and most have earlier targets, or certainly earlier milestones for partial completion. Yet most of them seem to build on ideas and structures that are already at least partly in place in Elgeyo Marakwet. Assuming broad buy-in from key government champions, civil society and some members of the public, there is a chance of meeting many of these commitments.
However, I believe that the best way to ensure that concepts like OGP have an impact is to ensure that they are well publicised. We should broadcast the broadcast transparency as widely as possible, so that governments come to feel that they have to live up to their commitments or risk embarrassment. This is not necessarily because governments do not have good intentions when they sign up to such commitments (though they may not), but because such commitments carry little weight when other pressing matters compete for attention unless they have a solid constituency.
Although I understand there was good attendance at the OGP launch in Elgeyo Marakwet, it is fair to say that the constituency for reform is still fairly small. Unless citizens and other organisations stand up and take ownership of these commitments, we shouldn’t expect government to hold itself to them. Given that Elgeyo Marakwet is the only county in Kenya participating in OGP, and given that Kenya and its counties will be judged by its participation, we owe it to the county to publicise its activities and hold it to its commitments. Doing so will also ensure that other counties begin to pay attention and to draw lessons and examples from Elgeyo Marakwet’s experiences.
I would therefore encourage civil society, business associations, women’s groups, labour groups, professionals and others with an interest in what is happening in the county and the North Rift Valley more broadly to get involved in tracking the county’s performance and making sure that its triumphs and defeats are broadcast properly in the media.
Jason Lakin is Kenya country director for the International Budget Partnership.