Governor's Office Machakos
Governor's Office Machakos, Kenya

Introduction and Historical Background

Kenya became independent from British rule in 1963, however, the British influence remained dominant in many areas of Kenya's political and socioeconomic operations. Most notably was the centralized system of local government, with respective ministers in the capital city of Nairobi controlling 175 local authorities across the country.

In the early 1990s, many African countries, like Kenya, that operated under systems of government based on the government structures under colonial rule, began to adopt new forms of government under pressure from civil society organizations and other stakeholders who were actively lobbying and advocating for participatory and inclusive governance. In Kenya, the primary issues raised by the people were demand for multiparty democracy and a devolved system of government. In 1997, the national government agreed to consider structural change in the country, and a constitutional review process began.

New Constitution in 2010

In August 2010, a new constitution was adopted in Kenya. True to most Kenyans' demands, the people's power was guaranteed: "Sovereign power of people is exercised at the national level, and at the county level" (Article 1 (4) of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010). As a sovereign republic, the constitution further clarified the nature of the national and local governments noting that “The governments at the national and county levels are distinct and inter-dependent and shall conduct their mutual relations on the basis of consultation and cooperation.” (Article 6.2)

A devolved system of government was introduced, with 47 county governments geographically created across Kenya to replace previous local governments. Some of the main objectives of devolution, as outlined in the Constitution's Article 174, are to "promote democratic and accountable exercise of power; recognise the right of communities to manage their own affairs; and to ensure equitable sharing of national and local resources in Kenya."

County Government Structure in Kenya

As illustrated below, each county government has two arms: legislative and executive.

Governors are chief executives of county governments who serve five-year terms and are term-limited at two terms. The governor appoints a deputy governor, who usually is active in the campaign as the governor's running mate during elections.

The governor's main role includes nominating and leading a county executive committee, which is also referred to as "county ministers” or “cabinet.” The county executive committee is comprised of professionals, who head various technical departments within county governments.

Other roles that governors play include representing their county government nationally, regionally, and internationally; making, approving, and implementing county policies; approving and assenting to county bills that the legislative arm passes; delivering the Annual State of County Address; and signing notices of formal decisions so they can be published in county gazettes. It is important to note that governors do not possess any veto authority, allowing the legislative arm to serve in a watchdog role on behalf of the people.

County secretaries, who coordinate the activities of the executive, are also appointed by governors for a five-year term.

Legislative Arm

The legislative arm of most county governments, which is also called the county assembly, is comprised of members who are typically elected at ward levels. Elected representatives to the assembly are referred to as members of county assembly (MCAs).

In addition to the elected MCAs, there are nominated members as well— referred to as "special seat members." They are a political party’s nominees meant to assure equitable representation of all people. The number of seats may vary and cannot exceed one-third of the total assembly. Special seats are nominated so that no more than two-thirds of the assembly membership is of the same gender, and that “marginalised groups, including persons with disabilities and the youth,” are represented (Article 177). Each party gets to appoint the proportion of seats based on the number of elected MCAs from their party who won elections. All MCAs serve for a term of five years.

Other members of county assemblies are county speakers, who are ex officio members, deputy county speakers, who are nominated from among elected MCAs, and clerk to county assembly.

The main roles of the legislative arm of county governments are to represent residents, and to legislate and oversee the executive branch.

Human Resource Management

According to the constitution of Kenya, 2010, every county government should have its own public service, which is run through three- to five-member county public service boards. They are in charge of staffing and disciplinary matters. Governors nominate board members, while MCAs approve the nominations.

Sub-County Structure

The constitution mandates county governments to create structures that guarantee citizens' easy access to services: "Every county government shall decentralise its functions and the provision of its services to the extent that it is efficient and practicable to do so." (Article 176:2 of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010).

The county government’s decentralised structures are headed by sub-county administrators, ward administrators, and village administrators respectively. They are all accountable to the office of the governor.

Urban Areas – Small Cities, Municipalities, and Towns

Although they are governed by county governments, urban areas are managed differently, under a law called Urban Areas and Cities Act Number 13 of 2011, with Amendment Number 3 of 2019. According to that law, one of the criteria used to get city status is a commercially organised geographical location with population of at least 250,000 residents. Other criteria include having a city development plan and a demonstrated capacity to generate sufficient revenue to sustain its operations. Only one city, Nakuru, has qualified to get city status under these criteria.

Major cities in Kenya are Nairobi, the capital city, and Mombasa and Kisumu. Their management is similar to other county governments. The population threshold, however, is higher than that of small cities. In Nairobi, for instance, the population is nearly five million people.

Municipalities and towns are also required to meet the same criteria as cities in order for them to acquire their respective status. Population requirement for municipalities is 50,000 residents, while for towns it is 10,000 residents.

General County Government Functions and Revenue

Typical of local governments worldwide, the primary function of county governments in Kenya is to provide such public infrastructure as roads, water, health, waste management systems, street lighting, and others. The Fourth Schedule of the constitution outlines 14 functions that county governments should perform. They are agriculture, county health, control of air pollution, cultural activities, county transport, animal control and welfare, trade development, and regulation including markets, county planning and development, pre-primary education, natural resources, environmental conservation, county public works and services, firefighting services, disaster management, control of drugs and pornography, and coordination of community participation.

For effective execution of their functions, county governments have strategies for revenue generation. The main ones are intergovernmental transfers and own source revenue. On the former, the law allows: “revenue raised nationally shall be shared equitably among the national and county governments. County governments may be given additional allocations from the national government’s share of the revenue, either conditionally or unconditionally.” (Article 203 (2) of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010). A minimum of 15% of national revenue is transferred annually from national government to county governments, based on the most recent audited accounts.

An equalization fund of 0.5% of national government revenue is also transferred to certain county governments, the ones in the marginalized areas like Turkana, Mandera, Wajir, Isiolo, Lamu, and others. Those areas have been left behind in development, so the fund is aimed at bringing the quality of services like water, roads, and health facilities in those areas to the level that is generally enjoyed by the rest of the nation.

Automated systems, such as the Integrated Financial Information Systems (IFMIS), have been introduced to county governments as one of the strategies for effective revenue management.

Management of Urban Areas

Urban boards manage cities and municipalities on behalf of county governments. Towns are managed by town committees and town administrators. Governors appoint some of the board members, while different organisations within a locality nominate others. Total number of appointed and nominated members ranges from nine to 11 members per board. Nominating organisations are listed in the Urban Areas and Cities Act as professional organisations within a city or municipality, private sector, registered associations of informal sector, and registered neighbourhood associations. Members of county assemblies have to approve all governors’ appointees. Town committees are also appointed by governors.

Once appointed or nominated, the board selects respective chairpersons from among themselves during their first meeting.

Managers and other professional staff are recruited competitively by county public service boards. The former, who are answerable to board members, are expected to implement board decisions and functions.

Powers and Functions of City and Municipality Boards

These include exercising executive authority as delegated by governors; ensuring service provision to residents; guaranteeing residents’ participation in decision making; developing and adopting policies, plans, strategies, and programs, plus setting targets for service delivery. Another one is to formulate and implement integrated development plans. All the functions are formally attached to the Urban Areas and Cities Act. While city and municipality boards are body corporates with perpetual succession and common seals, town committees are not.

Funds of a Board

County governments allocate funds to their respective boards. Other sources of income include monies or assets that may accrue to the board in the course of the exercise of its powers and functions; or monies or grants from any other legitimate source.


Strengthening local autonomy is a significant focus of Kenya’s post-colonial government. By empowering local authorities, the people are granted greater control over their daily lives. Kenya’s emphasis on inclusion and equity within their adopted national constitution assures local governments include elected and appointed officials to strengthen the voices of all people within a given community. As nations and communities consider ways in which to strengthen inclusion and equity, Kenya provides a model from which to build upon decentralised government principles to accomplish its goals.

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