Reports from the Auditor General every year since 2013, show blatant wastage of public resources, overstating the cost of projects and wasteful expenditure. Additionally, lack of proper accounting systems at the county level has facilitated misuse of public funds at the devolved units.
Moreover, records have not been kept well (mostly deliberately) and the devolved units are not meeting the accounting standards. Counties also suffer inadequate skill set within various segments of the Public Finance Management (PFM) system. This undermines strategic resource allocation and efficient use.
Weak internal audit
Truth be said; the fact is that we don’t have proper financial systems today in most of the counties. There are weaknesses in internal audit systems which compromise accountability and sound controls and identification of risks.
Public participation is absent and where it is carried out, the information provided is limited, and participants don’t even comprehend discussions making these forums mere formalities. Besides, public access to information is limited, especially the access to budget documents within set timelines.
Yet counties were meant to spur growth from the regions. Curiously, the county government’s budget implementation reviews have consistently painted a sorry state of devolved units. The common narrative is that of billions spent on salaries and allowances. There are also the extreme cases where many of spend nothing on development. No wonder in many instances, Kenyans feel that value for money was not achieved as expected.
In fact, a report from the Controller of Budget for the year 2018/2019 revealed that county governments allocated little or nothing for development. The report further reveals that Members of County Assembly and county staff benefitted from huge allowances from local and foreign trips.
Granted that the law is very clear that the PFM Act provides that at least 30 per cent of budget must be development, who is monitoring this implementation across counties? How do such budgets pass at the level of the County Assembly if they do not meet that minimum threshold? The Senate which is supposed to prefect this situation seems to be toothless and too busy with other issues.
With this sorry situation, safe for numbered county fathers, how is devolution helping the ordinary Kenyan? If and when development has to “come from Nairobi”, then this kind of devolution makes for little sense. For it is only through development projects and real change for ordinary Kenyans that a system counts.
Yet modern government budgeting is increasingly expected to be a continuous conversation between stakeholders: executives, legislatures, auditors, the public, and other independent institutions. Governments cannot simply announce their plans and do as they wish. They have to explain the reasons for the choices they are making.
Similarly, as the conversation continues, governments also have to explain why they did not do things they said they would. But this is not happening in the counties as stakeholder engagement has become a farce. Even when the Senate summons these county chiefs to explain some of these issues, nothing has come of it. At the same time, we seem not to have recognised standards for assessing the reasons county governments provide for not following their own budgets and at times, plundering public resources.
This means that providing something that looks vaguely like an explanation, even if it does not actually explain much and fails to facilitate further conversation on the loss of billions about the budget, is okay. This is tragic for Kenya. It negates the very essence of devolution and the hope Kenyans have on devolved units.
It is time Kenyans started being more critical to scrutinize the accounting of public finances to county governments. For example, the Constitution and the 2012 Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) require each of the 47 counties to publish information during the formulation, approval, implementation and audit stages of the budget cycle. This is mostly not done and when done, it is done to circumvent its very essence. The fact that most county governments are not accounting for funds, as per PFMA, provides a leeway for unauthorized spending. It further makes holding county governments financially accountable, impossible.
A lot more is required to ensure fiscal discipline, strategic allocation of resources, and efficient service delivery within our devolved units.