Issues to ponder over as mid-term budget hearings are held this week

As new projects are concocted, is project rationalization complete? [File, Standard]

The first perspective goes to the heart of the budget.

Is our current budget picture (expenditure mix between sectors) still "fit for purpose"? Based on Treasury's BROP ceilings, agriculture is allocated three per cent of the national ministerial budget (Sh2.2 trillion), education is allotted 26 per cent, health gets seven per cent, environment protection five per cent and social protection seven per cent.

Even allowing for devolution, and outside of education's mighty share, that is 18 per cent on the basics. After accounting for education, that leaves 20 per cent for infrastructure and trade, 26 per cent for governance and administration and 10 per cent for national security.

Before we get to Maputo/Malabo's 10 per cent commitment for agriculture, or Abuja's 15 per cent commitment for health (again, accepting that both are also devolved). When will we have this first conversation?

The next two perspectives are about pictures of today. If you have been following Kenya Kwanza keenly, their perpetual messaging is "yesterday bad; tomorrow good". This is not news. Indeed, it's not only the way we (as others) do politics, but by personal observation, it's also the way we tend to do strategy in this country. We love context (the result of history) but we dislike baselines (the picture of today). This is probably why we aren't quite hearing about the picture of tomorrow.

What happens when you don't have a picture of today? You end up with three messages. Pleas for more time to deliver. Fresh promises with tight timelines. Endless "rear view mirror" language.

The sector reports that are the basis of these hearings are a case in point. Because a clear picture of today is not articulated, results are measured by completed activities (x people trained), rather than outcomes (poverty reduced, jobs created). One hopes that the recent top honcho retreat fixed this - if not at outcome - at least at output level (service usage, product uptake).

Pending bills

This doesn't mean there are no pictures of today in the sector reports. The first one is pending bills. Treasury data at the end of September 2022 showed national-level pending bills at Sh440 billion, of which Sh82 billion applied to national government MDAs and the rest to parastatals (whose public funding comes from MDAs). We shall ignore for now end-September Sh160 billion in county pending bills that will probably need a bailout from national government (whether you call it added allocation or county support) if they are to do any service delivery and development.

The sector reports - to end-June 2022 - offer a more fascinating insight. The sum total across all sectors is Sh346 billion (presumably including a few, but not all parastatals). But here's the real picture of today; Sh55 billion (16 per cent) of this total is due to "lack of exchequer" (it's in the budget but there's no cash to pay) and Sh291 billion (84 per cent) is due to "lack of budget" (it's not in the budget). Put it simply. Lack of budget is a discipline issue that needs a conversation. The more obvious conversation required is what these bills mean for our giant spending budget.

The second one is just as incongruous. We have a relatively recent item in sector reports around court awards (for concluded not ongoing cases or appeals). Across the sectors, the amount determined was Sh166 billion at the end of June 2022, of which Sh34 billion had been paid, leaving Sh132 billion outstanding. As we scream "rule of law", there is another budget conversation here.

The final two perspectives, briefly, are about programmes and projects. Do the sector reports demonstrate any structural shifts in programmes in 2023/24? Not really. The total number of programmes across sectors increases from 156 to 165, but outcomes on which they are based remain mostly the same, as does the scope of sub-programmes. Basically, we haven't really changed the vehicle (programmes) but we want to reach our destination faster. But of course, the big retreat happened, so we probably have a fruitful fourth conversation in front of us.

Four out of every ten projects are in energy

Kenya's current budgeting logic is such that you cannot have a project that doesn't fall under a programme. This reflects the US-style programme-based budgeting system we established in our PFM law about five minutes after we got our new constitution. So we expect that all projects, old and new, have been assigned to a programme by now. That's one part of this last conversation.

But here's the real one. Across all sectors, the 2021/22 project portfolio count comes in at 2,133 projects; with four out of every ten in Energy, Infrastructure and ICT, another two across the Agriculture and Environmental Protection sectors.

A quick review shows that 601 of these projects are at 100 per cent completion, with 1,532 carried forward into the current 2022/23 financial year. Which naturally leads us into the final conversation. As new projects are concocted, is project rationalization complete? As with the question at the beginning on budget space, do we now have a project space that brings new Kenya Kwanza projects into a viable project portfolio?

Probably no answers at the hearings, but some conversations we need as the rubber meets the road.