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ICT Bill: Do not stifle innovation

President Uhuru Kenyatta when he signed into law the Data Protection Bill 2019. [PSCU]

Protecting professional associations through an Act of Parliament has become a national trend. We recently had another Bill on management practitioners and now ICT. The latter is curious because of the persistence from 2016.

Kenyans should be aware that many “mischievous” Bills are sneaked in when the parliamentary term is about to end; when we are not keen and are intoxicated by-elections. Some board meetings do the same, sneaking in unpopular issues when members are tired.

Back to the ICT Bill. My first encounter with ICT was as an undergraduate student taking programming courses in BASIC, COBAL, PASCAL and FORTRAN. The click age using the mouse was just beginning. We used DOS as the operating system with commands like CLR for a clear screen. ICT then was not for the faint-hearted.

Then came Microsoft Windows and its associated software applications such as Word and Excel. The mouse made computers easier to use. The price of computers went down, and so did their sizes. Computers left offices for our homes and schools and a new area of study, computer science, got into university curricula.

Today, ICT has shed the aura of mystery, even children can easily use computers. So why the Bill when the sector has become more open and less mysterious?

Like medieval guilds, the ICT practitioners want to create an aura of mystery around the profession. And decide who can get in. This may raise the prestige of the profession, like medicine or law. It’s assumed that standards will go up.

Restricting the number of those who can practice ICT will raise the price of work - supply and demand come into play.

Noted the price of legal and medical services has remained high despite more doctors and lawyers?

The professional associations backed by law can control the charges, and interfere with the laws of the market. The officials of the organisation that will police the profession will also raise funds through annual subscriptions. That might be the not-so-secret objective of the Bill.

Other professional associations have been doing that for years and accumulated lots of assets. My bigger worry over this Bill is that it will stifle innovation.

Lots of innovation, not just in ICT but in other sectors, come through tinkering. And from outsiders.

Check the Bill and you see the heavy hand of the government, with five representatives including two ministers in the council of the institute, the governing body.

Professional associations

The institute also intends to discipline its members through removal from the register. The committees of the council of the Institute of ICT practitioners mimic other institutes such as the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya (Icpak).

What matters to the client is not your membership but the quality of work. I have never asked my mechanic or plumber for their qualifications.

Have the current professional associations raised the quality of services? Is there less fraud because of Icpak, faster dispensation of justice because of the Law Society of Kenya, and fewer houses collapsing because of architects’ association, among others?

Policing independent thinkers is hard, even for the government. Does giving marriage licences stop divorces?

ICT practitioners should be comfortable without an Act of Parliament. They can welcome more thinkers and tinklers, raising the chances of breakthrough innovations.

ICT is special because of its openness. That is its greatest strength, now seen as a weakness by the Bill’s proponents. Imagine if we restricted the number of citizens who want to become entrepreneurs?

The ICT practitioners Bill opens a wider debate. How should we catalyse innovation in Kenya? Control is not the best way. Competition is a better option. The ICT startups that have made Kenya their home are partly attracted by freedom and lax regulation. Are we about to kill that freedom?

Remember the dispute between graduate engineers and their professional associations?

How will this Bill deal with remote working, made popular by Covid-19? One can be working in a Kenyan firm but based in another country.

Does he or she need to register? Why can’t you make registration optimal?

Since I do a lot of ICT work on my computers or phone, do I need to register? Why is the Bill dated 2020?

Who will be the next in line to form another institute? Motivational speakers? Methinks that ICT is too broad, innovative and dynamic to be contained by an Act of Parliament.

Who needs my FORTRAN or COBAL? Let me focus on R and Python. Shall that demand I be registered too?

Competition is the best catalyst for innovation in any sector.

Can the Bill assure Kenyans it will not stifle innovation, more when ICT is everywhere, from our homes to offices and streets?