Collective decision making is not alien to African culture. In many traditional societies, decisions were made by a council after listening to the views of different age groups and other societal groupings. In Kenya for example, bodies such as the Buch Piny of the Luo, the Njama of the Taveta and Agikuyu and the Njuri Ncheke of the Meru were known to make decisions such as whether to go to war or about the division of farm land after consultation with groups within the community.
The Internet governance space has made tremendous progress by collective decision making under the multistakeholder model. Multistakeholderism is a consensus based decision making process where various stakeholders such as government, civil society, academia and the technical community are involved.
In Kenya, collective decision-making has been restored through the Constitution of Kenya 2010, where public participation is entrenched as a national value and principle. In addition, citizens have a right to petition any public body on any matter under their purview and public bodies are now mandatorily required to consult stakeholders in matters that affect them. While there are many questions on the quality of current stakeholder consultations, this provision is an important facet of people-centred development.
The ICT sector in Kenya is a good study of public participation. Perhaps due to the influence of the multistakeholder model, public bodies in this sphere have a history of involving stakeholders in decision making from around 2005 when the country developed its first ICT policy. The public bodies in the sector include the Ministry of Information and Communications, the Communications Authority, the ICT Authority of Kenya, the National Communications Secretariat, the Media Council and the Kenya Film Classification Board. The minister and the regulator have wide powers to make regulations while the ICTA is the focal point for policy implementation. The other bodies have more discipline focused mandates.
Non-state actors have organised themselves in representative bodies in the private sector and organisations in the digital rights movement. There are several policy think-tanks as well as a good number of techies and users who frequently contribute to ICT policy development issues.
KICTANet is a multistakeholder platform where such policy discussions take place. It is a loose network of individuals who give input on topical issues through a mailing list. The list was started in 2005 during consultations for the ICT Policy of 2006. After many years of giving input, KICTANet listers sought to assess the effectiveness of the practice by analysing policy discussions on the list in 2016. The analysis will be published in December 2016. Ali Hussein, an active participant in the network describes the objective of the review in a tweet:
'How have we as a nation performed? What could we have done better? Are we engaging each other in a constructive manner? #ICTReview2016'
Interestingly, in early 2016, one of the founders of KICTANet was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Information and Communication while a co-founder was appointed a Principal Secretary in the same ministry. Listers in early 2016 generated a wish list of issues they desired the officials to address during their first 100 days in office.
For the assessment, a survey was posted on several local mailing lists where respondents gave their views on policy developments in the year under review. Issues were placed under five categories: policy and legal, regulatory, human capital development, ICT infrastructure and information infrastructure.
Some of the interesting findings of the survey were that many felt that the Universal Service Fund had not met its objectives. This is because there were still many areas that remained underserved yet the fund had not been fully utilised. They noted that ICT initiatives were not getting to the grassroots, hence Internet availability remained largely in large towns for the middle class. Listers also perceived a disconnect between the training and education offered by tertiary institutions in the country versus market demands.
Respondents gave many suggestions on issues that needed intervention in the coming year. The suggestions had a fair balance between the goals of increasing access to the Internet and improving the quality of the Internet. Some ideas for more access included increasing last mile connectivity, backbone infrastructure and use of white spaces. Towards a higher quality Internet experience, listers flagged high prices of data, dominance, over-regulation of e-content and slow digitisation of government services such as police records. Under all categories, respondents raised concern over the lack of a data protection and privacy framework yet there was increased surveillance. A golden thread connecting many of the recommendations was a desire to see more practical use of ICTs to improve the livelihoods of people and therefore curb problems such as unemployment and rural-urban migration.
On the issue of multistakeholderism, close to half of the respondents felt that meaningful engagement between the government and stakeholders had been moderately achieved. This may have been informed by frustration when listers raised issues that went unanswered.
This exposes the many challenges of multistakeholderism. For example, there are still hang-ups from traditional governance where government did not make decisions in collaboration with stakeholders. Some stakeholders are not used to publicly sharing for example, their business practices, while the capacity of civil society to engage on some issues remains low. A lack of commitment to collective decision making processes as evidenced by some public bodies who seek input from stakeholders merely to fulfil the constitutional requirement for public participation is another obstacle.
Grace Githaiga, co-convenor of KICTANet, is optimistic that with continued engagement, different stakeholders will eventually work towards collectively solving problems and influencing positive change. She singles out communication as key to building multistakeholder relationships, 'Multistakeholderism is about collaboration, engagement and giving useful information to stakeholders so that they stop speculating and drawing negative conclusions.'
Indeed, a best practice has already been noted where since last year, the regulator publishes responses received from stakeholders on consultations it undertakes, enabling the public to track the effectiveness of their contribution.
Grace Mutung'u is an associate at the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) where she carries out policy and regulatory analysis. She is currently an Open Technology Fund Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center studying freedom online during election periods in East Africa.