Financial accountability remains a challenge in county management

Rt Hon Raila Odinga listens as Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru explains the architectural features of the proposed Kerugoya Hospital Medical Complex at the Kirinyaga County stand on the third day of the Sixth devolution Conference at Kirinyaga University grounds, March 6, 2019. [Mose Sammy, Standard]
As this year's devolution conference themed “Deliver, Transform, Measure; Remaining Accountable,” closes its doors, there are many issues that require attention in the counties, including how governors use money to accelerate development.

Granted that the Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides for devolved government and indicates the functions as promoting social and economic development and the provision of proximate, easily accessible services throughout Kenya, it is incumbent upon the county governments to ensure this happens. But is it happening?

One of the main purposes of devolution was to bring public finances closer to citizens in a manner that would allow them to have a say on how county funds were planned for and used.

Financial accountability is one of the most challenging tasks that most counties face today yet could be the panacea to the high corruption levels within counties.

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The County governments Act No 17 of 2012 requires that County Governments create awareness on devolution and governance and promote citizens' understanding for purposes of peace and national cohesion.

Further, the Constitution and the 2012 Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) require each of Kenya’s 47 counties to publish information during the formulation, approval, implementation and audit stages of the budget cycle.

Poor performance

Essentially, this means that key fiscal and budget-related documents are availed to the public online or otherwise. However, this is not happening in many counties. This situation, which amounts to lack of transparency, seems to be aimed at facilitating a culture of financial mismanagement and corruption at county level, in an environment where, no one seems to be holding county governments accountable.  

As a result, citizens cannot participate effectively in the budget process as intended under the Constitution and Public Finance Management Act (PFMA).

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To make it worse, county governments know they can get away with failing to account for funds because there are no consequences to poor performance as they are assured national government funds irrespective of PFMA. First, the dearth of information on budgets is worrying because citizens cannot be sure of how public funds are used.

The lack of budget estimates and implementation documents means that not only do citizens fail to know how county governments budgeted; they also do not know how they used the funds. Lack of both budget estimates and implementation documents at the right time means that citizens cannot hold county governments financially accountable.

Second, although lack of information does not automatically mean funds are being embezzled, the lack of budget reporting facilitates embezzlement. The fact that most county governments are not accounting for funds, as per the PFMA, provides leeway for unauthorized spending and more.

Timely access

Third, as part of our democracy and social accountability, those in leadership positions at county level  need to actively engage the public by providing adequate time and resources for public to participate in the governance processes. It is also important to build capacity of the citizens and other non-state actors to understand their role in devolved governance.  

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Fourth, there also is need to train state actors to appreciate the essence of meaningful engagement in social accountability processes. Easy and timely access to verified and authentic information is critical in ensuring that all stakeholders are adequately informed for productive engagement for the benefit of all.

Fifth, citizen groups and accountability entities should be formed and be more active and vigilant if the objectives of devolution are to be achieved. This is required, especially  because Kenyan citizens have invested their hopes in these devolved units to empower them, and because existing frameworks for holding county governments to account - which mirror the failed national frameworks – are inadequate.

On this account, we have seen that county assemblies and devolution frameworks have fallen short of the checks and balances they were supposed to be.

Although the role of oversight at the counties is shared between the Senate and county assemblies, this role has been the source of much confusion, which prompted the Council of Governors to seek a constitutional interpretation.

Ultimately, the power of financial accountability of county governments is in the hands of ordinary Kenyans. When questions arise and county governments prove unwilling to be accountable, there will be need to use alternative methods to bring them to account including the judicial system.

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This is the only sure way to financial accountability and meaningful development within counties.

Prof. Mogambi, Communication and Social Change Expert, teaches at the University of Nairobi.hmogambi @ yahoo.co.uk

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Raila OdingaKirinyaga Governor Anne WaiguruSixth devolution Conference