Abdi Mohamed Golo:
Strengthening the relationship between a government and its citizens might seem to be such an obvious priority for democracies that it hardly needs spelling out. Yet governments everywhere in Africa have been criticized for being remote from the people, not listening enough and not seeking participation.
Street protests and political unrest may have grabbed most of the headlines, but less spectacular developments have included a steady erosion of voter turnout in elections, falling membership in political parties in virtually every country and declining confidence in key public institutions and angry public.
Calls for greater county and national government transparency and accountability have grown as public and media scrutiny of government action increased in the recent past. Not that consultation and participation never happen, they do. But these efforts are too often focused on specific issues where there is little public interest.
Engaging citizens in decision and policy – making allows the national and county governments to tap new sources of ideas, information and resources when making decisions. All fine in theory, but where to start in practice? While not having all the answers, Citizens as Partners, have to be informed on the issues in counties and national level and to throw some light on the way forward.
The starting point is clear. To engage people effectively in policy making and decision making, at both levels of governments must invest adequate time and resources in building robust legal, policy and institutional frameworks. They must develop and use appropriate tools, ranging from traditional opinion polls of the population at large to consensus conferences with small groups of laypersons in counties.
Experience has shown, however, that without leadership and commitment throughout the public administration, even the best policies will have little practical effect and this is all seen with the gap between the people and their governments. I was really impressed by Wajir county government headed by Governor Ahmed Abdullahi (Jiir) taking this initiative of public participation from all levels and the other counties should emulate the same for better service delivery.
The key ingredients for success in engaging citizens by our governors in policy and decision making are close to hand, including information, consultation and public participation. Information provided has to be objective, complete, relevant, easy to find and easy to understand. And there has to be equal treatment when it comes to obtaining information and participating in policy and decision making. This means, among other things, governments doing all they can to cater for the special needs of linguistic minorities or the disabled, by ensuring that information is provided in all of the country’s official, and local county languages.
Timing in public consultation is essential. Indeed, it should be as early as possible in the policy and decision making process. After all, people may well be more angry and frustrated at being asked for input when a decision has already been taken than if they had not been consulted at all. Today, there are widespread efforts to put more government information online and open up arenas for online consultation between government and people and this right step for our counties.
The respective roles and responsibilities of the government (making a decision for which it is held accountable and on which its performance may be judged) and the citizen (providing input for the decision-making process) must be clear too. Citizens are not government; they elect it and want to be served by it. But if they are to participate more than just via the ballot box, then they need proper access to information, meaningful consultation and opportunities to take an active part in policy and decision making.
The government at all levels must be clear from the start about its objectives in seeking the public’s views, as well as being careful not to raise unrealistic expectations.
But people tend to accept the outcome of a fair process, even if it is not the solution they would have chosen. There is of course a danger that seeking public input too often may lead to consultation fatigue. By recognizing that the time and effort citizens invest in being consulted by government is a precious resource, steps can be taken to improve co-ordination and avoid duplication across government units.
The current difficult political and economic climate has led to talk about the return of government, not just as regulator and arbiter, but as a key partner in free-market economies, as well as provider of security, emergency services.
In the present turmoil, the point should not be forgotten that the strength of democracy lies in having active and informed citizens. Governments can no longer afford to provide incomplete information or just ask the public its opinions on matters that are fait accomplice.
And while reaffirming government’s role is welcome, it would be no good returning to old models of large, impenetrable, secretive public institutions. Transparency, public consultation and participation are more important than ever to improve decision and policy and reinforce democracy and stability. Promoting open and transparent government, while guaranteeing security, privacy and civil liberties, is a major challenge of our times.
Kudos Wajir County Government and Governor Ahmed for taking similar initiatives of public participation by the citizen!
Abdi Mohamed Golo, Toronto Canada