So last week, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTAnet) hosted what is possibly the first town hall meeting with Members of Parliament – specifically the Parliamentary Committee on ICT.
More often than not, MPs meet citizens in only two settings – during election campaigns and during formal stakeholder engagement sessions at Parliament buildings.
The first setting is of course full of promises that both the legislators and the citizen know they would not keep. The second setting is where lobbyist present their position hoping to influence pending legislation in their favour.
In both cases, the truth tends to suffer. The town hall setting, introduced by KICTAnet borrows heavily from the US public participation approaches.
Held at a Nairobi hotel and graced by the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on ICT William Kisang’, the MPs and participants were both at their honest and frankest levels.
Participants from media, academia, civil society, private sector, youth, etc. asked questions and shared ICT experiences and subsequently got honest feedback from MPs.
In a non-binding, equal-footing environments that town hall meetings present, you tend to get and distil the issues without the hidden agendas that often come with formal meetings.
After the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on ICT had outlined the successes and challenges of the committee, participants had an opportunity to present questions.
A few of the questions caught my attention and I share them below.
Why is Parliament still pursing the so-called bloggers’ bill, officially the KICA Amendment Bill No 61 of 2019, despite its obviously draconian provisions?
Secondly, why is Parliament pursuing a soon-to-be-published bill that aims to license ICT professionals, barring them from practicing if they are not licensed?
Thirdly, why is Parliament pursuing the KICA Amendment Bill No 20 of 2019, which seeks amongst other things to split up existing telecommunication companies into separate voice, data and mobile money enterprises?
Finally, what happened to the proposed ICT community centers, whose budgets were approved, to be deployed in all the 290 constituencies across the country?
On the bloggers bill, most of the MPs were in agreement that the bill is likely to die a natural death given that many of its provisions have been previously been ruled unconstitutional.
However, the bill must still go through the parliamentary process to its natural conclusion – either to be rejected or enacted.
As for the upcoming ICT Practitioners Bill, the MPs suggested that members hold on their views and bring them on board as and when the bill is gazetted. As such, participants’ views were appreciated, but were however ruled to be premature.
As for splitting telecom operations into separate independent or autonomous entities, the law makers felt that this was one way of controlling significant market power enjoyed by some of the operators.
By separating operations into different business units, one hoped to address the cross-subsidy practice where operators can use the success of say their mobile money business to subsidise the operations of their voice or data business.
This then creates a market distortion within the subsidised subsectors.
Questions still lingered on, as to why such an exercise on cross-subsidies cannot be addressed and interrogated by the Communication Authority, rather than through legislation.
The MPs argued that the Constitution gives them the mandate to regulate anything and everything under the sun.
As for the ICT community centers, the MPs revealed that each MP had an approved budget of Sh4 million to set up these ICT centers. Citizens should therefore pursue their local MPs and find out what they did with the money.
Clearly, this sort of meetings with parliamentary committees in charge of various sectors should be encouraged and regularised.
They present an opportunity for both MPs and citizens to review progress or lack of it, learn from each other and jointly establish the strategies to push the Kenyan development agenda forward.
Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.
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