Devolution is a concept introduced into the constitution. It is not about window dressing, with central Government in Harare letting local communities talk endlessly, but keeping a tight fist on the pure strings and effectively doing nothing.

It involves devolving decision-making down the line to the most appropriate level and in practice this means that the spending of a good chunk of the local infrastructure budget is decided by those who actually need that infrastructure and probably have good ideas of how it can be put in place.

This debate has only had meaning, of course, in the last year or two in the advent of the new dispensation. 

With fiscal reforms and tightening of tax collection now pushing us into the position that only around half the tax dollars are spent on staff costs, there is quite a lot of money that can go on services and on upgrading the facilities and infrastructure in each area, so the devolution debate moves from the abstract to the practical.

Under the old system, each ministry and department would list all the things they wanted each year. These wish lists would be cut back, since even in the best years there would never be enough money for everything, and then the final list would come out, but still divided by ministry and department and still the result of internal departmental planning directed by bureaucrats in Harare.

Under devolution things are different. Some programmes and projects have to be national. The major highway system, large power stations, big dams and other things that affect the whole nation or a very large chunk of the nation.

But other things are much better done at a local level. And the devolution budget, $2,9 billion this year, is practical money to fund these other things. All the Government is demanding is that the money be well spent on things like health, education, roads, irrigation and the like.

But, and this is crucial, it is giving local authorities a block grant, not a bunch of grants in little boxes so the people who live with the decisions, good or bad, can exercise their imagination.

You could easily have a community that at first sight needs a clinic and a new school, as the assigned facilities need a long hike. And they are told that there is not enough money for both.

But when the community looks hard, they figure out they do not need both. What they really do need is the clinic, plus houses for nurses, and a decent safe footbridge across that river over there so their children can take a 2km stroll to school in the rainy season rather than go on a 20km journey to the main bridge to the north.

So everyone does the sums, with the relevant civil servants in attendance, and finds out that there is enough money for a clinic and a bridge. Decisions are made and implemented.

We actually saw this in Mhondoro-Ngezi recently. A particular area needed a new clinic, since the nearest one was 40km away. A clinic without a borehole is useless.

There was not enough money for both. Minds spun, and a solution was found. The clinic only needed a bit of the water, so the rest could be sold. So local businesses and others were asked if they would help fund the scheme so they could have water too. Numbers were crunched, agreement reached, and the community got a clinic and a piped water scheme.

The point was that people who lived there were able to think up this solution that crosses the boundaries of several ministries because they were dealing with each other, rather than having decisions made in at least three ivory towers in Harare.

Mistakes will probably be made, but since the mistake will be made by the community it might not be that big a mistake. Corruption needs to be watched, and considering that local officials and councillors are now joining former ministers and suspended civil servants on remand this is a potential problem everywhere. But a reasonably alert local community will be in many cases a tough watchdog, as it is their money being stolen, and they will raise the alarm a lot earlier.

Zimbabwe is still feeling its way as it moves from theory to practical steps to devolution.

How will wards, districts and provinces work together?

What decisions should be made at what level?

Should the active, go-ahead and imaginative communities be held back by the sluggish, dull and apathetic?

What sort of decision-making and co-ordination structures are needed?

These are all pertinent questions, but by moving forward some solutions will be automatic.

Local authority elections have not always been taken seriously, especially in some urban areas.

People voting the straight party ticket find out, as two past Harare mayors noted angrily, that they can fill a council with stuffed dummies. But once you start talking about $2,9 billion minds are likely to be concentrated and even if they want to vote the straight party ticket they will want that party to put in candidates who can oversee such spending sensibly.

One huge advantage of devolution is that you do not have to plan a three-day expensive journey and make a dozen appointments with civil servants in Harare.

You can go round the corner and beard your councillors in their den. So you want councillors who know their stuff.

President Mnangagwa himself has already noted that the provincial decision-making machinery needs an upgrade, and for a start needs to separate functions that belong in Parliament from those that belong locally.

He has carefully explained that devolution has to be oriented towards people and communities, empowering them, not using it for weird personal eccentricities.

But the journey has now started, and has been backed with real money. We can move forward, building on successes, correcting errors and even dumping things that simply do not work.

As the President has made perfectly clear, devolution is about empowering communities and trusting them to actually know better than anyone else what they need.

That lights up the road ahead, so now we need to move along it, step by step but without pause for rest.