When President William Ruto unveiled his Cabinet after being sworn into office in September, the devolution docket was conspicuously missing. This was surprising given that during the election campaigns last year, Ruto pledged that if elected president, his government would strengthen devolution, starting with a full transfer of all constitutionally devolved functions to the counties within six months.
He also promised timely transfer of sharable revenue from the national government to the devolved units. The failure by the President to name a Cabinet Secretary to oversee this critical national docket was a departure from the tradition set by the previous administration which established the Ministry of Devolution mainly to facilitate a smooth working relationship between the two levels of government.
By its very nature, devolution is an expansive ecosystem consisting of an array of stakeholders that need to be managed on a continuous basis from both a policy and implementation perspective. The holder of the docket also acts as the point of oversight by Parliament over the Executive on matters devolution. Article 153 of the Constitution provides that a Cabinet Secretary can be summoned by committees of the National Assembly and Senate.
Currently, Devolution is a State Department domiciled within the Office of the Deputy President. It is headed by a Principal Secretary meaning that technically, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua is also the minister for devolution. Not having a substantive CS comes with obvious challenges. For instance, what are the chances of a committee of the House summoning the Deputy President in his capacity as the de facto CS for devolution to appear before it to explain the delayed transfer of funds to the counties? Almost nil.
Yet counties are grinding to a halt due to delayed transfer of cash by the Exchequer among other challenges. Only this week, the Council of Governors issued a 14-day notice to shut down county operations due to failure by the National Government to disburse Ksh 94.35 billion owed to the counties. This unprecedented move lifted the lid on the dire financial state afflicting the county governments.
But does having a CS solve the problem? There are those who argue that various institutions created under the Inter-Governmental Relations Act to facilitate inter-governmental relations, including the National and County Government Coordination Summit (NCGC), Inter-Government Budget and Economic Council (IBEC) and Inter-Governmental Technical Relations Committee (IGTRC) are sufficient and thus no need for a ministry.
But much as we would want to pretend that the existing inter-governmental relations mechanisms are working, it is clear that even the high-level interventions, like the Naivasha conference in February this year, chaired by none other than the President and his deputy, are yet to yield the desired impact, like conclusively resolving disputes over county funds and the equally contentious Equalisation Fund.
Determining these disputes will require a lot of political goodwill from both sides as well as ongoing consensus building around contentious issues like the quantum of shareable revenue that should go to the county governments. Hence the need to appoint a CS to drive the Governments’ devolution agenda and who ideally should be a person with solid experience in governance and administration and with strong credentials as a champion of decentralized government.
It should however be noted that the work of the devolution CS is not to manage the counties. It is merely a facilitative and advisory role, revolving around policy and ensuring the national and county governments are working harmoniously, and importantly, advising the President and Cabinet on implementation of Chapter Eleven of the Constitution.
Given the complexities of devolved government, he or she also offloads the huge work burden of managing counties from the President, who has other equally pressing national issues to attend to. In short, President Ruto should re-consider his decision not to appoint a CS to handle this critical national function.
He could do that without appointing an additional CS, for instance, by adding the devolution function to the ministry in charge of Arid and Semi-Arid Lands and Regional Development. Then move the State Department for East African Community to Foreign Affairs where it really belongs. Ministry of Devolution, ASALs and Regional Development sounds just fine.
The author is CEO of Impulso Kenya Limited.