By Simon Ambale
The internet offers various possibilities to facilitate public debates and discussions, including political ones. Many civil society organisations have already found their way into the digital world and present their ideas online. Counties and government parastatals increasingly use digital communication services to serve the public.
Consequently, many public agencies have established or planned to establish online consultation and participation platforms.
The idea behind the shift to digital platforms is to be more transparent, resulting in increased interest and credibility and, thus, increased public participation. However, can these digital debates reach everyone? How can national and county governments leverage ICTs to enhance inclusive public participation?
Currently, only some people are connected to the internet. Studies show that older people and women with low education levels and who are socially disadvantaged have little or no access to the internet.
Moreover, there is a significant difference in access to the internet between people living in the city and those living in rural areas. Kenyans have much less access to ICT services than previously claimed. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) census report, the number of mobile users is 20 million.
At the same time, just one in five Kenyans can access the internet. The figures show Kenya’s access to ICT goods and services differently.
In 2020, the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), in collaboration with the ICT Authority (ICTA) conducted a study that focused on the adoption and maturity levels of ICTs within counties, as envisioned in the ICT Roadmaps.
The purpose of the survey was to establish and encourage faster adoption and maturity of ICTs within counties since ICTs – provide essential tools that facilitate efficient delivery of services and improve accountability and transparency.
The study revealed that most counties were still grappling with adopting and using ICTs to improve their governance and service delivery.
KICTANet has been more vocal about the multi-stakeholder approach in ICT policy decision-making processes. The intersection between public participation on digital platforms and internet access has arisen in many panel discussions in which KICTANet has organised or participated.
On February 23, 2023, KICTANet, in partnership with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), hosted a consultative meeting on access to the internet and its impact on women’s engagement in public participation mechanisms. The forum brought together 35 thought leaders from various stakeholders, including industry participants, government representatives, and civil society organisations involved in internet access and women’s digital rights.
The current regime has established plans to digitise at least 5,000 services by the end of June 2023 to serve the public efficiently. The Ministry of Information Communication and the Digital Economy is implementing the Kenya National Digital Master Plan 2022-2032 as the prime enabler of the country’s digital priorities.
The plan has five key pillars that drive the digital transformation agenda. They include digital infrastructure, digital services and data management, digital skills, digital entrepreneurship, and effective alignment with policy.
In addition, the government has also established plans to convene a public forum with civil society organisations to educate Kenyans on digitising government services. In the deal, stakeholders will undertake a countrywide civic education that will sensitise Kenyans on what they should expect after digitising the essential government services.
Unfortunately, the government is yet to establish a holistic, multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder mechanism for public participation. The Public Participation Bill of 2019, which could provide the framework for effective public participation, has yet to be enacted.
The 2010 Constitution places the citizens at the centre of development and related governance processes; it provides for public participation as one of the principles and values of governance. While guidelines anchored in the Constitution can institutionalise public participation, more than approaches are needed to ensure meaningful participation.
Successful participation requires the commitment and initiative of the government, citizens, and CSOs and adequate funding for participation activities.
On reaching the masses, the government should use the tools at its disposal to reach out to the public in the different areas and mediums where they converge, such as television, radio, and social media, to create awareness and let the public know about essential government decisions.
The idea here is for the government to have deliberate efforts to reach the citizenry for public participation, not the other way round. More must be done if the idea of taking public participation forums into the digital space is to be actualised.
Simon Ambale (@SymoAmbale) is KICTANet’s Monitoring and Evaluation Officer. He is also a data enthusiast and a lifelong learner with a demonstrated history of working in the Research and development industry.