‘Participating in participation’ or influencing policy outcomes? Evaluating the effects of public participation in Kenya’s sub-national legislatures.

Brenda Ogembo

Here Brenda Ogembo outlines her doctoral research, which was presented at the latest PhD Showcase at INLOGOV in April.

Public participation, community engagement, community involvement, public engagement, deliberative democracy and participatory democracy. The thread running through all these terms is the focus on fostering increased public participation in governance decisions that affect them. Initiatives like the Open Government Partnership and Open Parliament Initiative, which are increasingly being taken up by countries globally, are a testament to the increasing global demand by citizens to have greater involvement in decision making by their governments. The Sustainable Development Goals, which lay out the global agenda for sustainable development to 2030, have three specific targets directly aimed at increasing participation of people in decision-making processes. The focus on increasing public participation has however not been accompanied by as rigorous a focus on the effects of public participation, particularly bearing in mind the cost and time spent on these efforts. A critical review of the literature, reveals that there is a significant gap on the policy impacts of public participation (Salisbury, 1975; Abelson and Gauvin, 2006; Nabatchi et al., 2012). Public participation has instead become an almost ritualistic expectation which nobody dares to challenge if it is necessary or even beneficial. Burton (2009) states it best when he says that ‘for something that is held to be so important and to deliver a myriad of benefits, we know little of the extent to which the benefits of public participation are in fact delivered or of the balance of these benefits with any costs’. Interestingly, and which leads to the focus of the research, there is even less academic literature examining the effects of public participation in legislative contexts.

Increasingly, Parliaments’ have found themselves having to make significant efforts to increase opportunities for public participation to address the ever-growing arguments about the insufficiency of representative democracy in dealing with issues such as voter apathy and reducing public trust in political institutions. Many open governance advocates argue that increased public engagement can strengthen public trust in representative institutions and build a responsive, 21st-century legislature. However, we must ask ourselves whether greater efforts of public participation and the numerous focus on methods of engagement are achieving the purpose for which they are intended. Empirical research must question if the evaluation of public participation has focused more on evaluating and improving methods of engagement rather than on whether public participation improves decision-making and if it is of any useful consequence at all (Rowe and Frewer, 2004).

My doctoral research focuses on a particularly ignored area of public participation, i.e. public participation in legislative contexts. A quick scan through the literature on participatory democracy shows that public participation in legislative environments has largely been ignored and only recently have some scholars begun looking at public engagement in legislatures. The focus of the research in this area has largely been on the Westminster Parliament and UK sub-national legislatures. Much of it has mostly focused on methods of public participation employed by the legislatures’ and less so on their effects in the legislative process. This research aims to address this gap by looking at the effects of public participation in different legislative contexts. The research, using a case study of public participation in two of Kenya’s sub-national legislatures, will examine if public participation improves the quality of legislative decision making as well as if it has any effect on increasing public trust in the Legislature.

Research on African legislatures is scarce, and yet democracy has continued to take root in the continent. Large scale surveys such as those carried out by Afrobarometer, show that on average Africans, despite the challenges of democracy, still prefer it to any other kind of government (Mattes and Bratton, 2016). In 2010, when Kenya adopted a new constitution, one of the fundamental pillars of the Constitution was mandatory public participation in all policy decisions. The Constitution of Kenya makes public participation a central part of Kenya’s governance system and each legislative assembly is mandated to provide for it in its rules of procedure and ensure public participation on all legislation they consider. Articles 10, 174(c), 184 (1) (c) and 196 of the Constitution recognise participation of the people as a national value and principle of governance and detail how it should be implemented. However even as the focus on avenues for public participation has increased and methods for facilitating public participation have continued to grow, very little has been done on evaluating the effects of these exercises on decision-making. The research focuses on studying the effects of public participation in legislative decision-making with a focus on the budget-making process in the Nairobi Assembly and Mombasa Assembly, two of Kenya’s sub-national legislatures. The two sub-national legislatures are in relatively similarly sized urban cities with a multi-cultural population of predominantly young working age residents. The county budget bills have been chosen for the case study as they are recurrent every year in all county assemblies with the key budget calendar dates provided in law. The budget is also as an important bill for the assembly that carries with it various significant policy and legislative directions that affect people’s lives.

The primary objective of the research is to examine if public participation in legislative contexts improves the quality of legislative decision making and consequently increases institutional trust through greater legitimacy of its policy decisions. The project will be seeking to answer three questions –

  1. Does public participation in legislative contexts improve the quality of parliamentary decision-making?
  2. Does public participation lead to an increase in public trust of legislative institutions
  3. Is there congruence of evaluation from political actors and the public about the efficacy and purpose of public participation in legislative business?

In conclusion, local governments are considered a critical arena for increasing public participation in governance decisions. In fact, the entire framework of Kenya’s devolution is anchored on devolving fiscal resources and accompanying decision-making power on how those funds are spent to the local level so that citizens can be directly involved in making spending decisions on issues affecting them. The next year will be spent designing a framework that will enable a detailed study of the public participation process on the budget process in two of Kenya’s sub-national legislatures. The research will engage with citizens, politicians, stakeholders and elite actors that take part in public participation. In the process, the research will unpack what motives people go into public participation exercises with, what happens during the process of public participation to all the actors engaged and how do the various actors evaluate and take forward the outcomes of the engagement.


Abelson, J. and Gauvin, F.-P. (2006) Assessing the impacts of public participation: Concepts, evidence and policy implications. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. Available at: http://cprn.org/documents/42669_fr.pdf.

Burton, P. (2009) ‘Conceptual, Theoretical and Practical Issues in Measuring the Benefits of Public Participation’, Evaluation, 15(3), pp. 263–284. doi: 10.1177/1356389009105881.

Mattes, R. and Bratton, M. (2016) Do Africans still want democracy? Afrobarometer Policy Paper No. 36, p. 25.

Nabatchi, T., Gastil, J., Weiksner, G. M. and Leighninger, M. (eds) (2012) Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Civic Engagement. 1 edition. Oxford University Press.

Rowe, G. and Frewer, L. J. (2004) ‘Evaluating Public-Participation Exercises: A Research Agenda’, Science, Technology, & Human Values, 29(4), pp. 512–557.

Salisbury, R. H. (1975) ‘Research on Political Participation’, American Journal of Political Science, 19(2), pp. 323–341. doi: 10.2307/2110440.

Brenda Ogembo started her PhD after spending the last two years working with the Senate of the Parliament of Kenya as First Clerk Assistant. She is currently on academic study leave after being awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship in 2016 to explore the effects of public participation in legislative contexts with the objective of trying to inform better ways of citizen engagement in legislatures. She holds an MA in Public Policy from King’s College London, which she completed in 2011 on a Chevening Scholarship award.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s