Having worked in governance sector for 7 straight years, I came to believe in the importance of engaging citizens in the governance processes.
I ventured into this sector because I believed in the power of government to solve society’s problems by redistributing resources and stepping in to correct injustices. After several roundtable meetings with government officers, I came to see firsthand the immense structural and practical obstacles, public administrators face when they attempt to tackle the ‘wicked problems’ of communities. . . . I have gradually come to understand that an essential component is missing from the equation—”the engagement of citizens.”
There are reasons for the disconnect between citizens and their government, and one of them is the advent of the “professional” or “expert” in local government, in the form of the County Governor. The sub-national form of local governments was the result of a convergence of forces during the Progressive Era, including the rapid urbanization of cities, discontent with the corrupt practices of political machines, and the emergence of scientific management principles with the prospect of more efficiently run and accountable public organizations. An effect of this model has been the elevation of the value of technical expertise over citizens’ expertise, further distancing citizens from their local government.
In the Counties in Kenya, where I come from, Members of County Assembly look to the county Governor to ameliorate popular discontent and to create a higher performing county government. Their logic is simple: If they did a better job, citizens would feel better about them. But that is not usually the case. I gradually came to see that the key to fixing wicked community problems is role redefinition: elected officials are going to have to learn how to share power with citizens and citizens have to move from spectators to participants. There is need to help create the environment where citizen input into the decision-making process is valued; educate the community, elected officials, and staff on ways to make it happen; and then, lead the change.