Slow but sure will win the devolution race

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BY MWENDE MWENDWA

Devolution is one of the most exciting and defining moments in Kenya’s administrative and political history in recent years. Not only did the changing political structures captivate the public during the last General Election, but the hope and optimism shared by the majority of Kenyans on the power to self govern and make decisions through county governments was palpable.

Due to the anticipation of the improved standards of living promised in the Constitution, the determination of county government leadership to access the mandated technical and financial support to commence devolution has been spirited. Between March and July of this year, there has been a great deal of consultation between various stakeholders at both the national and county government levels, namely Governors, Senators, Line Ministries, National Assembly and Constitutional Commissions regarding the allocation of revenue to the county governments.

The county governments are entitled to a share of the nationally raised revenue for purposes of undertaking the functions mandated to them by the Fourth Schedule. Owing to the fact that the first official county annual budgets were passed in June, the timeframe required for needs and functional assessment for comprehensive budget submissions may have been strained. The spirit of devolution aims to ensure efficient and effective service delivery for all citizens and maintains an expectation of uninterrupted service delivery during the transition period.

The Transition to Devolved Government Act 2012 was passed with the intention of creating an orderly, open and standard process where Kenya’s devolution is concerned. The Act mandated several responsibilities necessary for successful devolution to be undertaken by the Transition Authority. This law provides an ordered and structured pace for capacity building, system and structure set-up and decentralization of functions and revenues from the national to county governments.

The importance of a phased transfer of functions and resources from national to county governments should not be understated given that the political structures currently in place are new and as such there aren’t any pre-existing guidelines or institutional memory to guide the newly elected leaders. Running headlong into unchartered territory may very well set precedence for a quagmire that will be problematic for both the national and county governments to untangle themselves from.

At this stage, six months after the General Election and establishment of the county governments, there are still capacity gaps at the Executive level in some cases and at county service level in others. This raises the issue of functional capacity of county governments to undertake the functions laid out in the Fourth Schedule of the Constitution. The arguments in favour of a mass transfer of functions raise the question of quality control in transfer without assessment. One of the main criticisms of local authorities, which had been previously tasked with decentralised service delivery, was the lack of proper coordination between needs, plans and budget allocations.

This led to a system where not all the needs of citizens were being met by the existing service delivery hence the call for devolution.

Taking lessons from the past, it is important for both the national and county governments to take stock of the capacity that exists at the human resource level and in regards to revenue availability and sound budget practices. This will give the county governments a clear and concise understanding of the baseline structures and systems in place as they begin to build on existing infrastructure and human resource capacity.

It is easy to understand the county governments need for a fast paced transition given the emphasis of devolution as a cure for a lot of the socio-economic ills currently plaguing the country. There is a great deal of expectation from the electorate who put in place the county governments based on promises of development and grassroots participation in budgeting processes. This does not negate the interdependency between the national and county governments and as such the need to find a harmonious balance to the devolution dance is critical.

Efficient and effective service delivery to all Kenyans remains the core of what the national and county governments are working towards. The success of devolution will be realised through concurrence by national and county governments on the way forward and principles they shall be guided by.

(Mwende Mwendwa is a policy analyst, Macroeconomics Division at KIPPRA. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of KIPRRA)

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