The Journey towards Effective Citizen Participation in Kenya

11.25.2015 | Case Studies | Ian Gatere


Elgeyo Marakwet County, roughly 329km northwest of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, is a richly varied county. It ranges in altitude from 800 to 2,400 meters above sea level, and is home to high altitude running camps that have produced a great number of world champion distance runners.

It is here in this pristine running environment that CIPE, together with the Kerio Center for Community Development and Human Rights (KCCDHR), is helping devolved democratic governance to take root.

Kenya’s new constitution, promulgated on 27th August, 2010, has rightly been described as a “people-centered constitution”1.

Unlike Kenya’s previous constitution, which had governed the country since independence in 1963, it does not vest power in the government. It vests all sovereign power in the people.

In this vein, Article 201 of the constitution calls for public participation in issues of public finance. Other articles of the constitution also support public participation by empowering any person to present a petition to Parliament (Article 119) and to public authorities in general (Article 37); encouraging public participation in the management of the environment (Article 69); requiring that Parliament and its committees sit in public except under exceptional, justifiable circumstances (Article 118), as well as county assemblies (Article 196); and requiring that the constitution cannot be amended without a referendum (Article 255) 2.

The importance of public participation was underscored by the Speaker of the National Assembly of the Kenyan Parliament, Justin Muturi, who, in an op-ed piece in Kenya’s best selling newspaper, The Sunday Nation, on June 28 2015, wrote, “the wording of Article 1 of our Constitution stamps this fact, that sovereign power belongs to the people and that this power is exercised on behalf of the people by specified institutions. Public participation is now a mandatory aspect of our parliamentary processes.”3

Despite this clear constitutional threshold however, the reality on the ground is that very little effective public participation is taking place.

“The way budgets are passed now, the leaders go to the public and return with no substantive changes to the budget,” explained Timothy Kiprono, Program Officer for Kerio Center for Community Development and Human Rights (KCCDHR), CIPE’s lead partner in Elgeyo Marakwet County.

“Then the MCAs (members of county assembly) and governors may say, ‘people rarely return views and that’s why we can justify little or no public participation’,” Kiprono says.

Edwin Rono, Project Director for Keiyo Community Development Trust Fund in Elgeyo Marakwet County, echoes this view.

“Citizen participation…[currently] involves taking a whole budget, giving people two to three hours, then asking them to pass it,” Rono says. “The number of participants is few. There are no guidelines on what constitutes public participation, what is quorum. Currently participation is below 10 per cent.”

This lack of effective public participation is a challenge in the counties, set up by the new constitution to take government closer to the people, as well as at the national level. As the Speaker of the National Assembly Muturi went on to state in his earlier referenced article, “Devolution is supposed to be about the people, but it is doubtful that the people are part of the process of governance in their counties… I would like to hear proposals on how Parliament can intensify its engagement with the people.”4

CIPE’s Intervention

In order to address the lack of public participation, CIPE is carrying out projects in five counties in Kenya: Elgeyo Marakwet, Kilifi, Makueni, Migori and Nyeri.

Some of the key projects carried out in Elgeyo Marakwet County in this regard include, the development of a simplified version of the county budget in order to promote a wider public understanding and critique of budget processes among citizens; the development of a Citizens Alternative Budget (CAB), which highlights the most pressing budget issues that concern citizens; organization of public forums on the documents; and the facilitation of roundtable discussions with citizens, community-based organizations (CBOs), county legislature and executive officials on the CAB’s budget concerns.

Based on 14 interviews carried out with citizens, county leaders, and civil society representatives involved in the CIPE projects in Elgeyo Marakwet County – as well as a desk review of related reports from CIPE, Elgeyo Marakwet County, and the media – the simplified version of the Elgeyo Marakwet County Budget received the highest rating from CBOs and other parties working to defend citizens’ rights, followed by the Citizens Alternative Budget which had a direct impact on the county budget.

Simplified Budget

“One thing that Kerio Centre did that we really appreciated was they simplified the budget,” Rono asserted. “We were able to make the distinction between a program-based and line-based budget. We’ve always had the latter in our county. Now we see the value of program-based budgeting.”

In a line budget, expenditures are itemized according to historical needs. Each expenditure item is put on a separate line. It’s easier to compile a line budget because the required data is historical, thus fairly accessible. It requires less working hours. It helps decision makers to identify their most expensive item.

A program budget focuses on the project’s description, rather than its itemized expenses. It often starts with a write-up on what the program hopes to achieve, and why that is important, before detailing the projected costs. It highlights the objectives and goals to be achieved by the program within a given time frame. A program budget is more forward-looking, but is harder to compile than a line budget. It provides context for decision makers, and helps them to understand where the greatest needs and opportunities lie.

This need to inform and educate the public in order to improve their capacity to participate in the development of the county budgets is emphasized by John Odengo, the interim County Secretary for Elgeyo Marakwet County.

“Devolution is a new concept,” Odengo explained. “People need to be educated so they can participate in it meaningfully and effectively.”

This view is supported by Daniel Kiptoo, the Chief of Staff for Elgeyo Marakwet County. “We need civic education,” he asserted. “We need to focus more on enhancing citizen understanding of this new way of budgeting because it’s not even understood by some leaders.”

The Citizens Alternative Budget (CAB)

Albert Kimutai, Executive Director KCCDHR, describes the aim of the Citizens Alternative Budget as follows:

“The Citizens’ Alternative Budget is basically the mwananchi’s [Swahili for “citizens’”] budget. It’s not the one proposed by the executive, then rubber-stamped by the county assembly.”

This bottom-up approach, where the citizens’ aspirations are captured first, followed by a budgeting exercise carried out around those aspirations, is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the CAB.

County leaders who were involved in the preparation of the CAB expressed admiration of, and appreciation for, the process.

“The Citizens’ Alternative Budget is important because it shares the aspirations of the members of the public,” said Kiptoo. “The approach of program-based budgeting as opposed to the line-based budgeting previously used is also important.”

Shadrack Chelimo, the County Executive for Finance and Economic Planning in Elgeyo-Marakwet County noted that the CAB provided useful feedback that is being incorporated into the final county budget.

“We’ve changed budget proposals based on outputs received,” Chelimo said. “We’ve participated with Kerio Center and as the county assembly travels through the county these views are collected and incorporated.”


The opportunities for inculcating a culture of public participation in Kenya are plentiful.

The Kenyan Constitution (2010) has set up the legal framework for effective public participation. The Constitution also requires that every key decision from county to national budgets, to appointment of constitutional office holders, be preceded by public consultation. At the local level, Elgeyo Marakwet County has an open-door policy to civil society including on issues like improving public participation.

But effective public participation requires more than a good constitutional foundation. It also calls for an effective mobilization of the public, timely disbursement to citizens of the agenda items for the public forums, packaging and presentation of agenda items –which are often technical in nature – in simplified forms that citizens can understand and effectively respond to, and the development of alternative budgets that capture and express citizens’ interests, among other measures that enhance public participation.

These are the constraints that CIPE, together with the Kerio Center for Community Development and Human Rights (KCCDHR), is working to address in Elgeyo Marakwet County, and in Kenya. The critical role this work plays at this time is well captured in the words of Kiprono, Program Officer at KCCDHR:

“This is the time to set norms. If things just go by and people don’t participate, that will be the norm.”


  1. “Kenya’s Constitution: An Instrument for Change”, by Yash Pal Ghai and Jill Cottrell Ghai, pg 16
  2. Ibid, pg 165
  3. “Kenyans must be involved in all processes,” by Justin Muturi, Sunday Nation, June 28, 2015
  4. Ibid