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With soaring inflation, Kenyans deserve more than 'sweet' words

 Members of the Public at the terraces during Jamhuri Day Celebrations, on Monday, December 12, 2022. [Samson Wire, Standard].

It is difficult to think that we are still in 2022. Wasn't the General Election held a lifetime ago, or is it not over yet? As the end of the year fast approaches, a visitor from Mars would be forgiven for wondering if Kenya is now a parallel universe in which, on the one hand, something is happening, or, on the other, nothing has started. Kenya at the end of 2022 feels unusually unsettled.

On one side, the ruling Kenya Kwanza administration looks like it's still getting to grips with its national leadership task, even though further inquiry suggests that, behind the scenes, they might be getting their ducks in a row on everything from politics to the economy.

On the other, the Azimio side seems increasingly hesitant and unsure of its oversight role in a US presidential-style majority-minority political setting that doesn't quite fit the traditions of a parliamentary opposition.

This is one backdrop to new efforts to amend the constitution to establish an official opposition as a check on the workings of the ruling administration. The back story is national power still matters.

Lest we forget, wasn't devolution the power-redistributing political compromise with the potential to get people to drive their development from the bottom, and grow the economy bottom-up?

Maybe we forgot, especially since much of what we read, watch and hear on devolution is today reduced to negative headlines about ghost workers, pending bills, delayed Treasury disbursements and impeachment shenanigans.

Development plans

Yet, now is the time when counties are consulting the people on their 5-year county-integrated development plans. But which part of the media is interested in that?

Part of our problem is we love the sound of sweet words. And President William Ruto's Kenya Kwanza administration is proving that they have a real way with the words we want to hear. Recent Jamhuri Day celebrations are a case in point. But let's begin with a little perspective.

December 22, next Thursday, will mark 100 days since President Ruto's inauguration into office. Another 10 days will take us to New Year's Day 2023, which will also be only 145 days after our August 9 election. If we haven't been following this stuff, this is the four-month lifetime we feel.

If we have, then we should know that by the 100-day mark, Cabinet Secretaries will have been in office for 56 days, and Principal Secretaries for 20. The Hustler Fund will be 22 days old with initial lessons on registration uptake and loan and savings performance quietly flowing in.

Of course, everyday Kenyans are more interested in life's basics. Lower food and living costs. Incomes through decent jobs and dignified livelihoods. Proper education, health, water, shelter and increasingly, social protection, plus safety and security in public places and private spaces.

That's the qualitative outcome-level scorecard on which any administration is constantly measured. Kenyans aren't as interested in means (e.g. police reform) as they are in ends (freedom from fear and want). This is where Kenya Kwanza will need to work much harder before talking.

Mostly, to quote the title of a great song for the older amongst us, Kenyans want "more than words". I have said before that I am no fan of this 100-day metric, but neither am I for more words.

This brings us back to the President's Jamhuri Day address which had more words than the official speech. The Standard headlined 10 major promises made on the day. Some are built on his campaign manifesto, some are already established in policy and there are a few brand-new ones.

The three-phase import plan (fertilizer, crops, fertilizer) on agriculture is an example of the first. An example of a new one is the promise to work with partners to create a million new tech jobs.

On existing policy, the digital superhighway promise is now quantified at 100,000 km that comes straight out of the previous administration's 2022-2032 national digital master plan's targeted expansion in high-speed fibre optic infrastructure (and, yes, 25,000 hotspots are also in the plan!).

Of this total, the PPP-based plan targets 52,000 km of new government networks by 2030 at a cost of Sh118 billion, and 48,000 km of new private networks by 2028 at a cost of Sh60 billion. To place this in context, it took the government ten years (2008 to 2018) to lay down 9,000 km of cable.

We are still talking about words, and it is striking that none of these three examples made it to the official speech circulated to the press. Given that the speech is an official policy document; indeed a document stored in our national archives, what should one make of these pronouncements?

Learning curve

But I digress. This is not the time to nit-pick; running the government is always a steep learning curve. Part of this learning begins with a proper inventory; before getting to the smart strategy. Here is a final example that makes the point - on the small matter of digitized, or e-government, services.

As this was not in the official speech, the press recorded a promise to "transfer 85%; about 5,000 government services to the digital space in the next six months".

A couple of days earlier, the ICT Cabinet Secretary promised to digitize 5,000 services and processes by next June. Hello, Kenyans don't care about the back-office processes, only the front-office service! So, which and how many?

Let's look at the statements that have been bandied about before. All 5,000 government services will be digitalized (so 5,000 is 100, not 85 per cent).

Only 15 per cent of services are currently digitized, implying that 750 are and 4,250 are not. But then we hear that only 300-350 services are currently digital. What do we actually mean by government service, as opposed to activity?

It is instructive here that the national digital master plan only refers to digitizing "all" services (no numbers) while targeting 80 per cent service automation and 99.99 per cent service availability.

Now, it so happens that a virtual visit to the Government Digital Payment Service website known as e-citizen will offer you a maximum of 40 digital services if you are lucky. A physical visit to your local Huduma Centre offers you, depending on your source of information, 45 to 66 services.

So, where are the other 300, or 700? Have we liberalized the term "service"? Let's look elsewhere.

In 2022, South Africa leads the continent on the UN-based e-government development index (Kenya ranked 10th in Africa).

This overall index combines three sub-indices; online service (based on 22 standard e-government services across all countries), telco infrastructure and human capital. Its most recent e-government strategy was built on a flexible target of around 150 services.

Rwanda, which scores highest in Africa in online service despite comparatively low scores on telco infrastructure and human capital, offers almost 100 digital services, with a similar number targeted for the next three years.

India's giant bureaucracy offers up to 3,000 digital services although its national government portal claims 12,000 services. But it's not just about numbers.

Qualitatively, here are some 2022 scores (scale 0-1) from the online service sub-index: Denmark (top of overall index) 0.9797; South Korea 0.9826, Singapore 0.962, USA 0.9304, China 0.8876, UK 0.8859, Israel 0.8745, Rwanda 0.7935, India 0.7934, South Africa 0.7487, Kenya 0.6821, Mauritius 0.6282, Ghana 0.5361, Nigeria 0.525, Uganda 0.5169, Tanzania 0.47, Ethiopia 0.373. Who is the benchmark for Kenya (3rd in Africa in online service after Rwanda and South Africa)?

Rushed audit

The temptation is to take this data into a rushed audit of government services in order to establish what and how to digitize. The innovative approach might be to turn this around not by rationalizing products offered, but by better internalizing citizen journeys in our interactions with government.

Indeed, the real place where this starts - accepting that it makes no sense to automate a problem - is at the very beginning. Ministries, departments and agencies perform two basic functions - policy (including enforcement) and service delivery.

Might this be where to start, with the basics? By getting our new CSs and PSs to develop progressive, transformative policy and service delivery mandates?

This could get exciting. The expert literature tells us that the digitization of government services follows a maturity profile that begins at individual service delivery (where we are) and flows through service value chains (including partners) into integrated whole-of-government solutions.

At the end is the Holy Grail that is Singapore's current pursuit - whole-of-life solutions where government must find out where it fits into people's lives rather than today's opposite. While most governments seek greater presence in our lives, Singapore's is discussing "invisible government".

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In this final digital example, the real promise might be better service outputs from government, through digitization, that improve outcomes for people. Getting these words right is a start.

But, to repeat that song, it must be "more than words".

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