In Kenya, so much ado about devolution

If we had a Kenyan dictionary, no doubt Kenyans would vote that ‘devolution’ be defined as ‘the modern route to personal wealth and enrichment through all manner of unsavory channels ’. This definition only applies to you if you are sitting at the right side of the table.

Of course, if you’re one of those people who gets into a raging argument with the hapless teller every time you shop because your tally seems to be creeping higher by the day, you’re welcome to replace ‘wealth and enrichment’ with ‘poverty’.

Welcome to Kenya, and devolution, two years on. It is no wonder that Wanjiku has difficulty differentiating between devolution and devolved greed. We seem to have created our own monster, and we are decidedly intent on fattening it up.

Eternal pessimism aside, let us go back to the beginning. The main reason devolution attracted support was in anticipation of the decentralization of authority, responsibility for fiscal management and efficiency of public service delivery.

The ability for counties to control their own resources and make governance decisions that that were tailored to their unique challenges resonated well with the populace and provided an opportunity for conflict reduction and management. Simply, local solutions to local problems.

Successfully executed, productive efficiency creates healthy competition at the sub national level which should see well governed counties attracting prime investment, human capital and sustainable growth.
History shows that the process of building decentralized capacity is slow and difficult. Over 25 years since South Africa adopted its constitution; capacity in local government remains a challenge, impacting negatively on service delivery. And herein lies one part of our problem.

When we were promised the roses and champagne that devolution delivered, someone omitted to point out the back breaking work that would have to go into its implementation before we reaped the rewards.

In fact, the wise among us should have told us that with the teething problems expected of a state of our size and age, we would be happy if we got to reap the full benefits of devolved governance within our generation.

It is a classic case of not having our expectations tempered sufficiently to prepare us for the power wrangles, evolving greed and most of all, the sluggish gains of a system that needs several components to change their modus operandi in order to perform.

It reminds me of a lesson I learnt the hard way in the course of my career. Being in an industry that relied on systems for service delivery, I saw this naiveté over and over again. Users, excited that a system would come in and magically transform all their woes would forget one fundamental truth.
That as progressive as any system may be, it is only one part of the software component, and in many cases, the human aspect is an even larger determinant of the success or failure post-implementation. That the price you pay for leaving the human capacity and change management aspect behind has long reaching effects.

And ours is certainly a case of human capital. Devolution invariably involves a major shift in power and control. It challenges accountability and performance management frameworks build along more traditional hierarchical structures.

It puts a higher premium on merit and competence and its success is less predicated on loyalties and public relations. Which is the other part of our problem. We are caught up in a game of chess – the stakes are high and the moves intricate but the players suffer from the inability to see more than two moves ahead and the actions feel grasping and short sighted.

Our plans as a country have been ambitious and admirable and we certainly have a long way to go. But extreme ambition can be both a good and a bad thing. It can make us sacrifice long term gains for short term wins, and it can create the endless jostle for power and resources that we have encountered, two years in.

And underneath all this, we get to utilize our Constitution to ensure that not only do we have structures in place, but that they are serving their proper purpose, which is protecting public good.

It is not enough to declare that we have set up say, public oversight and audit bodies if the checks and balances they are supposed to implement do not take root at all levels of governance. And most importantly, these bodies need to continuously champion the needs of the public above any individual’s interest, regardless of their sphere of influence, perceived or purchased.

We have seen the gains that devolution can bring when services are more responsive to the populace and when resources are shared in a way that resonates more with the taxpayers.

The biggest challenge and task now lies in finding way to support performance, accountability and public confidence while embracing innovation and creating room for locally designed solutions. If there is one lesson we can take away from South Africa’s experience, it is NOT to underestimate the human aspect of the implementation task.

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