"We are toothless and hanging, but optimistic": sub county managers' experiences of rapid devolution in coastal Kenya

Nyikuri MM, Tsofa B, Okoth P, Barasa EW, Molyneux S
Int J Equity Health. 2017;16

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BACKGROUND: In March 2013, Kenya transitioned from a centralized to a devolved system of governance. Within the health sector, this entailed the transfer of service provision functions to 47 newly formed semi-autonomous counties, while policy and regulatory functions were retained at the national level. The devolution process was rapid rather than progressive. METHODS: We conducted qualitative research within one county to examine the early experiences of devolution in the health sector. We specifically focused on the experience of change from the perspective of sub-county managers, who form the link between county level managers and health facility managers. We collected data by observing a diverse range of management meetings, support supervision visits and outreach activities involving sub-county managers between May 2013 and June 2015, conducting informal interviews wherever we could. Informal observations and interviews were supplemented by fifteen tape recorded in depth interviews with purposively selected sub-county managers from three sub-counties. RESULTS: We found that sub county managers as with many other health system actors were anxious about and ill-prepared for the unexpectedly rapid devolution of health functions to the newly created county government. They experienced loss of autonomy and resources in addition to confused lines of accountability within the health system. However, they harnessed individual, team and stakeholder resources to maintain their jobs, and continued to play a central role in supporting peripheral facility managers to cope with change. CONCLUSIONS: Our study illustrates the importance in accelerated devolution contexts for: 1) mid-level managers to adopt new ways of working and engagement with higher and lower levels in the system; 2) clear lines of communication during reforms to these actors and 3) anticipating and managing the effect of change on intangible software issues such as trust and motivation. More broadly, we show the value of examining organisational change from the perspective of key actors within the system, and highlight the importance in times of rapid change of drawing upon and working with those already in the system. These actors have valuable tacit knowledge, but tapping into and building on this knowledge to enable positive response in times of health system shocks requires greater attention to sustained software capacity building within the health system.