When President William Ruto announced his Cabinet a few days ago, one of the things that stood out was the omission of the position of a Cabinet Secretary responsible for Devolution. Two former chairpersons of the Council of Governors, debating the decision, disagreed on its implications.
One was clear that this demonstrated a lack of commitment to devolution while the other hailed it as a wise move.
The debate arises from the transformative impact of devolution on the lives of Kenyans. It has led to improved equity in development across the country, better service delivery and opportunities for participatory governance at the local level.
Many citizens who in the past felt alienated from their country now can better associate with Kenya and the work that their taxes do. The Constitution creates two levels of government, each with its distinct roles and functions.
It recognises, though, that the national and county governments share some functions and even in areas that they don’t there is a need for consultation and cooperation to enhance efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery.
Against this background, one would be quick to criticise the lack of a Devolution Cabinet Secretary in President Ruto’s government while hailing its creation during President Uhuru Kenyatta’s tenure. However, the reality is that criticism would be way off the mark
The existence of the Ministry of Devolution served the purpose of reducing the status of counties. There is no need for a Cabinet Secretary dedicated to devolution when there are clear and elaborate structures for intergovernmental relations. What is needed is to ensure that these fora are operational and discharging their functions.
The Summit, as the top decision-making organ consisting of the President and the 47 county governors, needs to meet more regularly. In addition, all the other structures under the Intergovernmental Relations Act must be more energised.
They are the primary avenues for making devolution coordination effective. To the extent that the ministry seemed to be replacing the efficacy of the legislated and formal mechanisms, it was not any help to the process.
By removing it from the high-level structures of government, the President cannot be displaying disregard for devolution. This action though must be accompanied by increased intergovernmental relations. He must make the Summit a living body.
The Intergovernmental Budget and Economic Committee chaired by the Deputy President too will need to continue playing its part. In addition, each of the line ministries with responsibilities over functions that are devolved or shared with counties must make the technical committees real and meaningful.
There needs to be continued and robust sector-based engagements between national and county governments to iron out issues and enhance collaboration
This way as opposed to having less focus on devolution, there will be more clarity, more attempts at consensus building and greater respect between the two levels of Government. The role of coordinating national government engagement with devolved levels should be vested in the Deputy Presidency and the legislative issues with Chief Cabinet Secretary Musalia.
That way the two levels of Government will then be engaging on a basis of mutual respect without one feeling like perfect of the other.
The next steps must also include urgent finalization of the unbundling of functions, transfer of more functions to County Governments in areas such as agriculture and water and reorganizing the structures of some national parastatals to align to the dictates of devolution.
This is the route to improving devolution, reducing overlaps and wastage of resources and ensuring that there are fewer turf wars between national and county governments. It will also make it easier to provide more funding to County Governments.