What Are We Learning About How to Engage with the Executive?

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An essay from the International Budget Partnership’s 2015 Annual Report

One of IBP’s core outcomes is to increase CSO budget analysis and advocacy that leads to better policies, implementation, and outcomes. Having learned that civil society budget advocacy that engages others in what we have come to call the accountability ecosystem is more likely to have an impact, IBP has expanded our support to partners to help them build relationships with legislators, government auditors, donors, journalists, and others. Still, in most countries the budget process remains an executive-dominated affair, so productive, collaborative relationships with the executive continue to be crucial to effective CSO budget advocacy, whether at the municipal, county, provincial, or national level.

One of IBP’s approaches to supporting CSO budget work includes a permanent staff presence in countries where we work. This has both deepened our work with partners and expanded the tools available to strengthen their budget advocacy, including joint research on budget issues, continuous and responsive technical assistance, and brokering relationships between CSOs and government. The focus of this essay is to look at what we are learning from our experiences in South Africa and Kenya about the nature of working with the executive.

What is called “the executive” actually comprises a complex mix of political and technical leadership, and members of the executive derive their legitimacy from various sources. Elected leaders derive legitimacy from their appeal to constituents. Appointees’ legitimacy comes either from their loyalty to the political leadership, or as professionals who bring valued skills to their positions. Many members of the executive have very short tenures, while others have greater job security and expect to serve for a number of years. Some are more involved in setting policy, others in implementing it. It is thus difficult to speak of a single executive. Instead, we are looking at ways of building relationships with different parts of the executive. Note that IBP often needs to build its own relationship with those in the executive so that we can help broker connections between our partners and government. In both countries, we have increasingly attempted to build relationships with nonpolitical members of the executive. In South Africa, relationships with political leaders in large metropolitan areas have been strained by local activist work around basic services. In response IBP has worked to build a relationship with the appointed head of a large service agency.

Relationship-building in this context has several elements: invitations to meetings that are either not directly related to contentious areas or focused on more technical, and less political, aspects of the issue at hand; joint projects focused on areas of technical convergence; and efforts to identify government officials who are uniquely important to partners’ work and then cultivate close partnerships with them.

In Kenya, after a couple years of making negligible progress engaging county elected and appointed leaders in the cabinet, IBP began to reach out to a cadre of more professional staff in county budget offices who have a technical interest in budgeting. IBP Kenya is able to draw in these officers by facilitating access to important national institutions, such as the Controller of Budget, that regulate the work of county heads of budget. Connecting these institutions has allowed the county officers to surface certain issues, build consensus on problems, and secure resolutions from the national government. This approach has been more effective with county technical officers than national officers, who already have access to these institutions. Another area of promise in our Kenya work has been around building up the County Budget and Economic Forums (CBEFs), which bring together members of the county executive and the public to deliberate on budget priorities. Our CBEF work over the past couple of years has involved raising the profile of these bodies and pushing counties to set them up. Our success with this agenda was a result of building relationships with different CSOs, government agencies, and a few executive champions. Core to this outreach was to appeal to the different incentives of different actors: agencies eager to establish authority, CSOs eager to advance constitutional implementation, and executive champions interested in channeling public participation in more effective ways.

Another lesson relates to the way in which we present our arguments. While politics and perception drive much of public policy, we are finding in both Kenya and South Africa that credible analysis and evidence by strong budget institutions can also make a difference. Thus, while analysis conducted by IBP Kenya and our partners is often ignored in the politicized decision-making process, it has been important in helping us to convene meetings on a broader range of issues around a topic and in setting the agenda where others are not as well prepared. This independent budget analysis has helped to shape the direction of meetings with county officers and with institutions like the Office of the Auditor General. In South Africa, as well, while evidence can sometimes lead politicians to react defensively, it has helped us to open doors to players in government that respect analysis and see the value of evidence that contributes to improving basic services. For example, one of IBP South Africa’s partners published findings from its budget analysis in the media, which led to an important new relationship with the executive when it elicited a constructive reaction from an official with whom no one had engaged previously.

This shows how, in cases where credible analysis will not open doors in the executive, pressure through media coverage or direct political action might be more effective at securing a seat at the table. In South Africa grassroots protest movements and media attention have repeatedly forced mayors and ministers to publicly defend and justify their actions (or, too often, inaction). These public responses have often been accompanied by behind the scenes approaches by the executive seeking to address the issues raised by civil society.

These tactics also entail risks. Poorly targeted efforts to build relationships or try to open doors can consume energy and resources, including political capital, without contributing much to achieving advocacy objectives. For instance, while it may be more expedient to engage technical officers, they often lack the power to make decisions, so a failure to cultivate political leadership can derail our plans. In terms of political risk, building relationships with agencies with very different agendas from our partners can end up leaving them in the position of appearing to promote agendas they do not support.

Managing these risks is part of what defines IBP’s work. There is no silver bullet. Transparency with the executive and with partners is important. We must make it clear that, while we value relationships, we will not compromise our social change objectives. Constant deliberation with partners about strategy ensures that the reasons behind our tactics are discussed and understood.

Going forward, how will we adapt our strategies based on what we are learning? First, it is clear that the search for allies in the executive is a major undertaking and one that demands constant probing in unlikely places. IBP’s country teams and our partners will continue to look for these allies wherever they may be and then seek to build relationships that are broader than any single agenda item and not overly instrumental. Good relationships are multifaceted and can be activated when needed in very different scenarios. Where IBP is directly engaging the executive, we will continue to discuss with partners how the particular relationship fits within the strategy to ensure that everyone agrees that the relationship is beneficial. Finally, we will continue to work with our partners to understand the incentives of the executive at a given time and place. Where appropriate we will help our partners to produce and support technical budget analysis and work harder to disseminate it so that it can help to open avenues of engagement for civil society as a whole. Where these insider tactics do not work, we will support our partners to formulate more robust tactics that can pressure the executive into engaging with CSOs.

Further Reading


John Kinuthia

Senior Program Officer, IBP Kenya, International Budget Partnership

John is a Senior Program Officer at the International Budget Partnership Kenya (IBPK). He joined IBP in October 2012 just as Kenya’s ambitious devolution program was taking off. John leads IBPK’s research and analytical work in Kenya, and he is part of the team that works to promote budget transparency and to improve public engagement on how the government raises and spends public resources.

He has done extensive research on Kenya’s public finance system for evidence generation that IBP uses to provide technical support to civil society organizations and, in some cases, government agencies. John’s research focuses on equitable revenue sharing mechanisms, equity in government expenditure, social protection, budget credibility, public participation in budgets, sub-national budget transparency, among other areas. His role also includes supporting capacity building and the publication of guides and tools that IBPK uses to improve community engagement with national and sub-national government budgets. John also plays a role in coordinating IBP’s programmatic work in Kenya, including supporting fundraising and administrative tasks.

John holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), an MBA in Strategic Management from the Kenya Methodist University, and a professional award on Decentralization and Local Governance from SOAS University of London.

Before joining IBP, John worked with Twaweza East Africa as an Associate Analyst, where he helped to build the Kenya Budget Explorer, a centralized budget portal, to improve citizens’ access to budget information.  He is a big data enthusiast, a happy bee farmer, and a part-time historian.

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