How Public Deliberation Can Move Us Beyond the Public Participation Rhetoric
Over the past several years,
Kenyans have engaged in a vibrant debate about the meaning of public
participation in government decision-making, particularly with respect to the
budget process. This debate has taken place
amidst widespread disappointment with the quality of public participation as it
is currently practiced at both national and county levels.
In this paper, the authors argue
that the concept of public participation needs to be refined. They propose that
the concept of public deliberation is more useful and, ultimately, offers more
specific guidance for thinking about how the public engages with budgets.
Drawing on the concept of deliberative democracy, the authors argue that it
requires government to make proposals, justify those proposals, and create
space for not just the proposals but the justifications to be debated. The proposals and justifications must be
relevant and plausible, must be open to change, and must be based on broad
concepts of public welfare, such as equity and fairness, and not reducible to
The authors also investigate
whether Kenyas national and county budget documents produced since 2013 meet
these standards and finds that in most cases they do not. Many of these documents are not readily
available to the public, and those that are often lack basic descriptive
information about the governments proposals.
Those that do have detailed descriptive information often lack relevant
justifications for the decisions they contain. Where there has been an attempt
to offer justifications for the decisions made, they are often too vague to
actually explain these decisions.
The paper concludes by arguing
that we should assess all government documents and government participation
processes by the exacting standards of public deliberation, using existing laws
to do so. The biggest impediment to
public deliberation in Kenya today is not the absence of law, but the lack of
sufficient demand from organized citizen groups for greater transparency and
more serious deliberation in the budget process.