Lessons learned: engaging the public in budget discussions despite social distancing

On March 13, 2020 Kenya recorded its first COVID-19 infection. Two days later, the government restricted movement and meetings in a bid to contain the disease. The move was critical to preventing rapid community spread of the virus. However, the decision also threw the work of governance advocates into disarray.

This is especially true for those who work by mobilizing people to engage their governments at local and national levels. IBP Kenya and partners were not exempt from the effect of the restrictions. Over the last three years, we have worked to build the capacity of community groups to advocate for services that matter to them. Two main areas of interest are water services for marginalized communities in Baringo County and primary health care in Busia County.

Together with our partners, we developed a response designed to allow us to engage virtually with budget and service-delivery processes. We were worried, and still are, about the potential for the COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures adopted to manage through it to significantly and adversely affect our work. We knew we could see a reversal in the gains we have made in transparency, accountability, public participation and equity.

Transparency: In times of desperation, policymakers frequently act in ways that are opaque, justifying a lack of transparency as necessary due to the emergency. We do appreciate that decisions at times like this must be made quickly, and that governments need leeway to adjust some processes. For example, procurement of personal protective equipment may need to be single-sourced to save time. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t dilute accountability measures, key among them transparency. Yet, transparency in how decisions are made and implemented at all levels of government too often has been a casualty. Decisions on which the public should be engaged are only announced when dialogue is no longer possible.

Accountability: The national government has not performed well in either transparency or accountability, and the response to COVID-19 has not improved the situation. A case in point is the questions raised by both Parliament and the Auditor General about monies allocated for prevention and treatment of tuberculosis and malaria, construction of dams and the COVID pandemic response. It is unclear how these funds have actually been spent.

Citizen participation: At the national level, opportunities for public participation in budget and spending decisions have been poorly structured and often exclusive to the few who can make it to Nairobi. While the law is clear that mechanisms of participation should be cascaded to the lowest level possible, that has not been actualized in the 10 years since it was adopted. And the COVID-19 crisis has only created more reason to restrict people from participating. Even when opportunity for engagement is given, the time is often short and lacks clarity as to how input will be used in the decision-making processes.

Equity: A key danger is that in this period, areas of the country with sufficient provisions may receive more, while those with the greatest need are starved. Equity is the only way to ensure that every Kenyan has access to good-quality water, health care and food, the three most important needs as a result of COVID-19.

IBP Kenya is engaging partners in civil society, the private sector and government to make the case for safeguarding these four values. Our goal is to demonstrate how government and citizens can engage constructively in the current circumstances. A cornerstone strategy is a model we call the “budget-deliberation café,” which applies mechanisms for public participation at both national and county levels.

How the budget café works

The budget café is a space where citizens can collectively learn, analyze and generate proposals related to budget decisions. In regard to learning, the focus is on understanding the decisions at hand, who is responsible and what resources are required. For many participants, this provides an opportunity to understand where the government is in the budget cycle, how they can engage and who should be the focus of their “asks.” When government officials are present, they help facilitate the learning sessions by providing an insider’s view of how things work. For instance, a government pharmacist in Busia County helped participants understand how drugs are procured and delivered to a facility.

During the analysis phase, government proposals are interrogated in light of past trends in allocations and implementation. This is most effective when budget practitioners work hand in hand with sector experts, with an emphasis on use of verifiable, publicly available government data. All other data sources are used to triangulate government information. Participants conclude by discussing and prioritizing their asks and putting them into memos targeted to decision makers. Citizens send these proposals to the appropriate government offices or carry them to formal public-participation forums. We have held these events in different locations and stages of national and county budget deliberations. A key opportunity occurs when the national and county budgets are tabled on April 30 every year for debate and approval. But this year, we wondered how we were going to engage when a physical meeting was impossible. How would we bring people together to learn, analyze and propose ideas for consideration?

New ‘virtual’ budget cafés due to COVID restrictions

While we debated these questions, we identified a great opportunity for not only bringing people together, but also reaching more people. We compiled a database of all of our budget practitioners and partners across the country, then emailed each, inviting them to register for an online event via Zoom. By the deadline, registration had reached 114 persons spanning 17 budget themes/sectors—almost three times the number who signed up for past such meetings. At least 24 of the 47 counties were represented (see map).


The first day of the cafe focused on learning. We discussed where we were in the budget process and why it was critical for civil society to engage. Speakers emphasized the need for government to be responsive to the needs of citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable who are at greatest risk of the effects of COVID-19.

Day two highlighted budget analysis. Small teams met in Zoom breakout rooms, with support by a team from IBP Kenya, our community budget facilitators and the Institute of Public Finance Kenya. Some groups took two hours to analyze their assigned themes, while others continued for six hours. The groups focused on themes ranging from health, to education, to water, to public debt and financing.

On the third day, each of the teams presented their analysis and the proposals they wished the National Assembly to discuss.

The teams then finalized and consolidated their proposals to send to the assembly’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, which met May 15. IBP and our partners will review the report from parliament to evaluate how responsive members were to input from the public and more specifically the budget café.

Lessons for public participation in a restricted environment

We have been successful in our search for a mechanism that links local realities and voices with national decision making.

However, we know there are limitations for those without access to technology, since they cannot join the virtual meeting. We will explore options to make this a more inclusive exercise.

In addition, we learned the following:

  • Internet and smart phone connectivity are all that is required to have national reach.
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    Nothing should be allowed to limit the reach of the national government in facilitating public participation across the country.

  • Communities need residents who are able to understand budget processes and documents. This includes knowledge of the budget cycle, the actors and their responsibilities, and the decisions that need to be taken at each step. In turn, these “champions” can facilitate engagement of many more people from their communities. IBP Kenya has invested the time needed to train budget facilitators, thus ensuring representation from 24 counties.
  • It is possible to include persons with disabilities. We enlisted the help of a sign language interpreter to assist those with hearing impairments. This was a learning moment for us; with innovation, even persons with other challenges such as vision impairments can be included in such discussions.

Next steps

In the coming weeks, IBP is supporting its county partners as they engage with local budgets. We will continue engaging in budget implementation for the rest of this financial year and prepare for even more robust tracking of the approved 2020/21 budget.

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