Ideas & Debate

True revolution can be spurred by devolution

Isn’t devolution the true revolution that Kenya needs? FILE PHOTO | NMG
Isn’t devolution the true revolution that Kenya needs? FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Our interminable politics continues to monopolise the national discourse. This is a crying shame; there must be much more to Kenya than a Presidential election.

Indeed, the ethnic census we expect on October 26 – if it actually happens – will probably not speak to 10 per cent economic growth, attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or even simple stuff like constructing five stadia in order to host a continental soccer tournament.

Pessimistic? OK, let’s say October 26 represents an opportunity to select the leader more likely to revolutionise our socio-economics as much as our politics.

Like, say, how judicial independence might enhance our commercial dispute resolution and property rights regime. Or Auditor-General autonomy that promotes the proper use of taxpayer money and safeguards public investment.

Again, that’s only if we actually get to vote on the said dateline.

Of course Kenya hasn’t closed down. A supplementary budget – to pay for the fresh presidential election – is about to be passed.

Meanwhile, governors have hit the ground running; ordering special audits, suspending or firing staff, appointing new county executives and chief officers and generally “cleaning out the closet”, as rapper Eminem might say.

Throw in flailing supermarket chains, shopping malls as tourist attractions and a banking sector where Tier 3 players are showing performance drops in the 30 to 40 per cent range. Wrap it up with our pioneering M-Akiba bond that’s had uptake problems.

It’s the cash, stupid! Our national “cash crunch” clearly doesn’t represent the 10 per cent growth picture that Kenya’s Vision 2030 envisages.

But what might? Our current moment of political haggling presents an opportunity to re-think a government that enables our growth and development dream.

Government? Well, there’s no such thing as a “good” economy with “bad” government. “Good enough governance?” Ah, that’s a populist myth; any corruption hurts our development prospects.

So here are four quick thoughts:

First, governors and county government. Any governor who by now doesn’t have a socio-economic baseline for their county is already asleep at the wheel. The first round of devolution allowed incumbents a honeymoon period to flaunt “gimmicks” as development.

This time around, governors would be well advised to focus on the sort of outcomes that Article 43 of the constitution envisages – quality health, adequate housing, reasonable sanitation, clean and safe water, freedom from hunger and quality nutrition, social security and education.

Add quality jobs to this mix. Factor in the need to address inequalities around gender and inter-generational equity and social inclusion. Call this the “outcomes” agenda against which governors must now be measured. Basically, it’s time to move from building “stuff” to getting to people to use the stuff.

Second, again, governors and county government. If we think of “outcomes” as the demand-side of their agendas, “institutionalization” is the supply-side.

As I have written before, effective county government rests on five capabilities: Modern policy, law and regulation; planning to results; coordination and cooperation; policy execution and service delivery and public participation and accountability.

And three capacities – shared values and culture; skills, structures and “fit for purpose” staff; and efficient processes, systems and technology. In short, governors should be institutionalising devolution to deliver outcomes for people.

What of national government? That’s my third thought. Kenya needs a national government that is less “super-implementer” and more “super-enabler”. To begin, an enabler of county government. In the middle, a facilitator of national or cross-county initiatives guided by sound planning and budgeting.

At the end, a policy enterprise that focuses on the “wicked issues” that Kenya faces. Like terrorism, or climate change, or general foreign and trade policy in a complex global environment.

Put simply, if county governments are “outcome” institutions, national government is an “input-output” structure.

Finally, the “fourth arm of government”. Outside devolution, the greatest gain in our bold constitution has been the establishment of our various independent offices and institutions.

It is a suicide mission to attempt to cut them down to size; let them do their work. And give them the budgets to deliver.

So, isn’t the answer to our perennial political posturing simply to deconstruct, that is, “re-imagine” government? Isn’t devolution the true revolution that Kenya needs? Underpinning that, isn’t constitutionalism what October 26 – and our future – is all about? Food for thought.