Blog | September 23, 2015 | Nyambura Salome

Researcher Nyambura Salome asks whether Kenya’s new e-government platforms have helped to increase citizen engagement with the state - or is it all politics for show?

The Jubilee Alliance won Kenya’s 2013 election campaign on the promise of delivering a new “digital and techno-savvy” government, in contrast to the opposition’s “analogue” mode of politics.

Fast forward to 2015, and the government has a plethora of e-government platforms: a new website; an e-citizen platform; an open data platform containing census data and government reports; one-stop shops (Huduma centres) for those who need individualised IT support to engage with government services, such as filing tax returns online.

It appears that the government has kept its promise of a digital world. But are these gadgets of any use? Are citizens using these digital platforms to access public services? Or are we still stuck in the analogue world of papers and more papers?

Kenya eGovernance

Kenya eGovernance

Step 1: Asking whether citizens can actually access the e-services

Out of 120 Nairobi residents we interviewed, 60% had accessed these new e-government services online. These tended to be the younger, more tech-savvy university students, entrepreneurs and professionals. 40% hadn’t tried the e-platforms because they were either unaware of them, lacked access to a computer/network, or had slow connectivity.

If these are Nairobi citizens, living in the tech capital of East Africa, what can we expect from citizens in counties further away from any broadband connectivity? Even for those citizens who are able to access the government’s e-services, the experience isn’t always easy.

How are the services functioning?

We checked the email contact information provided on different Ministry websites and most addresses were inactive. A random visit to the Nairobi Huduma centre for IT support in filling out iTax return forms revealed the demand for services is much greater than the supply – 250 citizens and only 3 desks to provide the service. It was worse at the Identification cards platform, where there were 400 citizens and only 5 desks.

When asked what the government is doing to promote the e-services amongst its citizens, bureaucrats had a twisted understanding of what demand-driven is. One bureaucrat said:

It is up to the public to develop the interest in e-platforms, because otherwise they would in future have no choice if they wanted those services.

In other words: government has set them up, now it’s the citizen’s responsibility to use them.

Are e-platforms effectively providing citizen feedback to government?

E-platforms can promote democratic engagement and be effective spaces for dialogue. But are Kenyan citizens using these platforms to dialogue with the government and influence decisions that affect their lives? In our surveys, only one third of Nairobi citizens had at some point engaged with a bureaucrat or public official through an online platform. Instead, citizens feel politicians listen more when they hold physical demonstrations, or amplify public outrage via social media.

A growing number of young Kenyans have taken to social media to raise critical issues in the government, such as the (mis)use of government funds or the charges of corruption by government officers. After South Africans, Kenyans are the most prolific users of Twitter in the continent, with Kenyans on Twitter being the preferred digital community. There are also local champions such as the Ushahidi platform, the TISA initiative, and PAWA254, among others, who seek to create platforms for citizen participation and engagement.

Does the government really want to listen?

It looks like our politicians are less enthusiastic about this form of citizen engagement. The bureaucrats and state officials interviewed felt online citizen engagement was less like dialogue and more “lamenting.” All they felt they heard on their e-platforms were criticisms and opposition to their actions. In one case, a group of youths formed a WhatsApp platform to engage with their local MP.  Much of what the MP read was criticism and negative feedback, which put her off listening to their “real concerns.”

Whilst bureaucrats acknowledge the need to listen to citizens, they seem to listen to more powerful actors - the telecom industry (important partners in project implementation), donor agencies (who support their initiatives), unions and consumer associations. Many of the politicians we spoke to argued that they do know how to listen, but the problem as one MP put it, is on the part of the public.

Citizens do not know how to engage with their leaders.

Politicians are themselves aware that most of their constituents cannot access the e-platforms, and instead turn to other platforms, such as barazas (public assemblies or forums), if they are to engage at all with their representatives. This also dis-incentivises politicians from actively engaging in e-platforms.

Is it all politics for show?

There is a communications gap between government and citizens which can only be bridged by e-platforms if the government is willing to promote it.

The shift from citizens passively consuming information, to using online public services, to becoming active citizens engaging the government requires a concerted effort. The government has to promote this as part of its agenda of ensuring accountability and transparency. And this promotion has to include getting buy-in from internal actors in government – because when citizens do speak up, many government actors don’t listen because they don’t like what people have to say: that they have massive needs for very basic services, and they do not like to see powerful government figures waste public funds while their needs go unsatisfied.

Many governments around the world are not actually trying to become more ‘open’, in the sense of becoming more responsive and accountable in their way of doing government; they are just adopting lots of open data and e-governance initiatives without any intention of changing the government’s low level of responsiveness and accountability to citizens.

Let's hope this digital transformation in Kenya is more than show.

About the author

Nyambura Salome is lecturer at the Department of Educational Foundations, Kenyatta University