Blog | March 16, 2016 | Varyanne Sika

Recently, we joined more than 100 people from counties across Kenya to discuss how to strengthen the County Budget Economic Forums.

These forums have been set up to support public involvement in deciding how county budgets are spent - and we should be thrilled to see government-mandated process for making budgets open for anyone to discuss with county government.

Most of us are happy to see CBEFs exist, but we’re also wary. Having structures in place is one thing, having structures that actually work is another.

Working with the International Budget Partnership and our own partners in Kenya, we started with a blunt assessment of where the CBEFs are now.

CBEFs are the only specific, legally required mechanism for public participation in the budget. While there has been a surge in the formation and operationalization of CBEFs across the country in the past 18 months, the evidence suggests that they are barely functional. (IBP, 2015)

Participants at this meeting were tasked with understanding why the forums weren’t working, and help plan how, as a group, we could help each other to change that.

It’s not about new policy or promises: it’s about taking the idea of the forums and making them actually work

IBP shared findings from their study, which concluded that:

  • County governments are not keen on engaging with the CBEFs
  • Non-state actors are not playing their roles as representatives at the CBEFs
  • There needs to be demand for CBEFs that comes from citizens themselves – who currently don’t know much about them

Going back to basics

  • Logistics: Many CBEFs lack basic organisation. Meeting venues are not nailed down in many cases, what follows is a lack of adherence to meeting schedules, where they do exist.
  • Budget: More importantly, apart from one county, Taita Taveta, no CBEF from the other counties had a regular budget for its activities.
  • Supporting information: Attendees at the meeting reported a lack of timely and reliable information on the budgeting process, meaning that there was often little to discuss – or no structured discussion.
  • Remit: Most worryingly, many people reported that the CBEFs were simply not being taken seriously by government actors. Unsurprisingly, county governments are reluctant to include citizens in their deliberations and are closed to criticism – and given that CBEF participants are not government employees, there’s no sanction or reward for government actors to participate. We were left asking how we can not only get citizen participation, but county government participation too.

A critical mass: creating consensus for next steps

These were not ground breaking revelations, but they were important points to agree on as there were a wide range of stakeholders in the room – including the private sector. Creating a cross-stakeholder agreement is vital in creating momentum for participation and change.

A national CBEF Steering Committee was formed to take up the issues raised at the convening and the challenges pointed out in the IBP report. At a minimum, the committee is tasked with driving improvements in the CBEFs by the time of the next general election in 2017 - so citizens can go to the polls understanding how public money is being spent.

On paper vs in action

There is no one secret to making sure that governance structures that exist on paper actually become functioning bodies. But, with the CBEF’s, the issue seems to lie in how seriously structures are taken.

At the national level, the government has put citizen engagement with government spending into both the Constitution and the Public Finance Act.

But the CBEFs don’t seem to be driven by local demand, either from citizens or from county government – their two main stakeholders. One group doesn’t know much about them, and the other seems unwilling to engage (and aren’t being made to do so). So how serious is the national government about them?

Similarly, the CBEF’s themselves aren’t helping their case by being disorganised and not giving the impression they are something government and citizens should take seriously.

There are two sides to this story, and the CBEF Steering Committee will need to work on both – creating pressure for government engagement, and creating organised, professional structures that government can engage with.

About the author

Varyanne Sika works for Making All Voices Count