Digital services launch presents a fresh performance lens for Kenya Kwanza

President William Ruto (centre) during the unveiling of Digital Government services at KICC, Nairobi. [PCS]

If memory serves me right, Friday’s launch of government’s digitised services was the first time we heard President William Ruto mention the “c-word” – corruption – more than once in a single event since his inauguration 290 days earlier. It is difficult to keep up with the numbers, but we also heard that 5,084 government services are now available on the exciting e-citizen platform. 

I think we were at 391 services last January, so this accelerated digitisation signifies the fruits of a herculean effort on the part of the bureaucrats and technocrats in the ICT and Interior ministries. Yet, beyond televising the live event, it is intriguing that there has been little subsequent press coverage on what looks like a significant progress milestone for the Kenya Kwanza administration.

As a healthy sceptic of government pronouncements (remember Jubilee’s #GoKDelivers?), I am still searching for a full list of these 5,000-plus services – as differentiated from activities – plus the 2,000 more services to be digitised by the end of 2023. Across our 48 governments (national and 47 counties), Friday’s launch works out at roughly 100 services per government. 

This huge service range represents a great treasure trove of potential government revenues if properly monetised. Indeed, from a revenue perspective, it stands to reason that normal people (including Kenyans) are more willing to pay for services they can see than taxes they cannot.

From a technical perspective, of course, it is assumed that these digitised services are the result of prior process re-engineering and activity and task rationalisation within the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) that make up these 48 governments. If this is not the case, then we run the risk of “computerising a mess” as we used to say in our younger days. In more modern terms, it is assumed that we are “digitalising” processes and workflows, not “digitising” data and content.

At the launch event, the president also set out a new target for Kenya’s digitisation journey- a national digital ID within 90 days (which takes us to September 30). He was dismissive of our previous Huduma Namba experiment, terming it “a fraud” that consumed billions of shillings. The ID ambition is a creditable one, but I take the view that we also need some sort of formal inquiry into what I call Jubilee’s legacy issues such as Huduma Namba to get closure from the past.

I am also hoping that this Kenya Kwanza administration gets the bigger picture that was available to Jubilee – the mooted national digital identification infrastructure that was supposed to integrate four data hubs - people, establishments, land and assets into a single source of our identity. This thinking was available ten years ago, in Kenya’s impressive 2013-2017 ICT Master Plan.

Service delivery is one of four performance orientations one should demand of President Ruto and the Kenya Kwanza administration. Not only is it citizen-focused, but it most closely reflects what one seeks from a government implementing a “bottom-up” services agenda. In today’s nanosecond world where digital is king, digital government is the way of the future. On this, the current administration looks like it has the will and wherewithal to deliver for Kenyans.

Performance orientations, you ask? In top-down order, the modern government typically has four performance imperatives. First, policy to solve the (wicked) problems of the people and society. Second, planning towards inclusive and sustainable national development. Third, budgeting that reflects the best principles and practice of fiscal responsibility. Finally, service delivery that, as noted earlier, is citizen-friendly. We translate these imperatives into orientations as the big picture scorecard for Kenya Kwanza that we will occasionally reference for the rest of its electoral term.

For today, what might we begin to reflect on regarding the other performance orientations?

To begin, the presence of several advisory teams at State House points to the implied emphasis that this administration is placing on the long-forgotten art of policy-making in a presidential system of government. A smart reading of this administration is that major policy – economic, fiscal, social, security, gender, climate change – is now firmly located in, and driven by, the presidency. In this very American design, MDAs operate more as policy “takers” than policy “makers”. That the president’s key advisors will now sit in the Cabinet is the proof of this pudding. 

An extreme view of this picture is that Cabinet Secretaries (CSs) operate as “policy-political” officers. A suspicious lens might see what we now have as a form of “policy capture” by the presidency. In an uncertain political environment such as Kenya’s, “state capture” is not far off.

It is difficult to talk about Kenya Kwanza’s planning orientation because the only national plan we have is the electoral campaign manifesto titled “The Plan”.  This is a subject covered before, but we also hear that we have the “Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda” (BETA).  We are told that this is the administration’s version of the fourth medium-term plan under Vision 2030, but it is surprising that we have a national budget for 2023/24 without this published plan. 

Is this apparently missing planning orientation a warning “red light”?

Even without a planning orientation – and remember, our laws say that a budget cannot exist outside of a planning framework – there is still plenty to say on this administration’s budget orientation. Following on from their own cue to focus on growing revenues rather than rationalising expenditures, we made the Finance Bill, now Act, now in court, the highlight of the 2023/24 budget process. It is surprising that no attention was paid to the Appropriations Act which the president assented to at the same time as the Finance Act.  But here are three other thoughts.

The first is on debt which brings us to the status of the debt register. On the one hand, claims have been made to the effect that we have “overpaid” our debt, or we have no debt. On the other, as we will recall, the pre-election version of Kenya Kwanza was quick to tell Kenyans that our public debt was understated and we had surpassed our debt ceiling many months before the election. The IMF had earlier questioned Treasury’s calculation of Kenya’s debt obligations, especially on parastatal debt. Is there an urgent case here for a proper, independent audit of the debt register?

Authorising spending

The second may or may not be canvassed in court, but let’s surface the idea here without prejudice. The constitution requires the presentation to Parliament of revenue and expenditure estimates for approval. The expenditure estimates are covered through the Appropriations Bill - now Act - authorising spending for the 2023/24 year only. Now, where is the parliamentary authorisation for the collection of existing revenues in 2023/24? Recall that Parliament can only provide tax and spend authority for one year at a time, not forever.

While the first two issues may be subjects of controversy, the third one speaks to a subtle reorientation of government. For the first time there are no ministerial budget votes, and all 2023/24 allocations are set out at State Department level, with the exceptions of the presidency and defence. This creates a direct line of sight on budget accountability between every PS and the president, which goes to suggest that CSs – as political officers – bear only political, not financial, accountability. This will be an interesting dynamic to follow given Kenya’s penchant for scandal.

Let’s treat this as the opening stanza in our simple view of this administration’s four performance orientations – interesting possibilities at policy level, nothing to report on planning, plenty of incidental observations at budget level, and what looks like encouraging promise at service level. In the end, we are looking for good policy, good planning, good budgeting and good service.

These are early days, but if Kenya Kwanza gets these performance orientations right, then, to go back to where we started today, we indirectly address corruption as their negative manifestations as bad policy, bad planning, bad budgeting and bad service. It really is as simple as “good vs bad”.