Beyond Wish Lists: Budget Deliberation, not Empty Participation

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I was recently in a meeting with an executive officer from one of Kenya’s counties whose docket was Fire, Disasters and Public Participation. The pairing of “participation” with “disasters” elicited some laughter from the room and seemed to capture the attitude toward participation of many government officials in Kenya. Indeed, almost everyone in Kenya today views the concept of public participation with suspicion. Sitting politicians see it as a tool of the opposition, county governments as an unfunded mandate, and the public as a tokenistic sham. While everyone wants to participate, no one is happy with participation.

Public participation is enshrined in Kenya’s 2010 constitution and there has been considerable debate over what it means in practice, particularly when it comes to budgets. But Kenyans are not alone in searching for a way to do budget participation that satisfies both government and public. All around the world there is growing interest in how to make public participation in budgeting effective.

What is it that makes getting participation right so difficult?

My colleague Mokeira Nyagaka and I recently published a paper that argues for a different way of thinking about budget participation, based on the challenges emerging in Kenya. We argue that the term public participation has lost meaning in the context of budget making and that a higher standard is needed if it is to deliver on its promises. The standard we introduce is public deliberation. This may seem like linguistic sleight of hand, but we endeavor to demonstrate that public deliberation actually offers more concrete guidance for how budget documents and discussions should be structured.

Budget Deliberation in Concept

Our conception of public deliberation is rooted in theories of deliberative democracy and moral philosophy. These traditions put public justification at the heart of modern governance. What decision making is about, they suggest, is public reasoning about choices. A deliberative process starts with a government proposal that is justified according to public (rather than private) interests. Such a justification must be viewed as reasonable (rooted in plausible reasons) even when others disagree, and must be subject to change through discussion. These ideas emerge from the writing of philosophers like John Rawls and Amartya Sen, who have defined reasonableness with respect to what we believe when we put our interests aside, or what an impartial observer with no stake in a decision would find reasonable.

This school of thought suggests that leaders are not responsible for making the “right” choices but they are accountable for the quality of the reasons they provide. The public must also engage with these reasons in a broad-minded fashion and propose alternative reasons, not just alternative choices, where they disagree.

Participation vs. Deliberation

These requirements may seem basic but many public participation exercises fall short. Consider a well known Kenyan scenario. Members of the public are called to a large public meeting. They are given little or no information about government proposals but are asked to generate lists of “projects” they would like to see in their ward or county. The government notes down suggested projects from across the county and then decides which ones to take forward. At best some of the projects favored by the public make it into planning documents, and some of these in turn make it into the annual budget.

Such cases are viewed as a success by the current standards of public participation — inputs from the public have been taken into account and have influenced government spending decisions. But they would not meet the standards of public deliberation. Why not?

First, the exercise did not start with a well-reasoned government proposal or set of alternatives, so people were not providing their views from an informed position. Without a budget constraint and/or a set of objectives, public participation is limited to creating a wish list of proposals, rather than facilitating reasoned budget decision making.

Second, members of the public were not asked to give or debate the reasons for their own proposals, so these were not necessarily vetted for reasonableness either. While the public has participated, they have not properly deliberated over or weighed the relative merits of different proposals.

Third, in preparing the plan or budget, the government inevitably accepted some but not all public proposals. Were proposals accepted or rejected based on their intrinsic value, resource constraints, or for other reasons altogether? Unless reasons have been given, this cannot be said to have been a process of deliberation. It is common for the Kenyan government to state that plans and budgets were informed by public participation; it is exceedingly rare to hear them explain why only certain public inputs were ultimately considered.

All of this adds up to a process that lacks the educative value of deliberation, which would expose people to competing reasons for trade-offs, as well as ensure people’s own preferences are subjected to debate and judged against the broader public interest. But perhaps the biggest loss is to government legitimacy. Democratic governments can only base their legitimacy on widespread support for their policies. Public deliberation offers the opportunity to ground public policy in justifications that people may disagree with but must ultimately respect. Decisions that emerge from open processes and that are founded on plausible reasons can reduce perceptions of arbitrariness in government decisions and encourage support for public administration. As it is currently practiced in Kenya, public participation is neither instilling confidence in government decisions nor engendering an informed public. Public deliberation — and the standards and practices it requires — may help to do both.

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