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Financial irregularities cast a shadow on eCitizen

A State official shows how to access a government service through eCitizen. [David Gichuru, Standard]

The government’s plan to centralise all public payments through the eCitizen has come under fresh scrutiny as mounting opposition and legal challenges threaten to scuttle the policy. 

Earlier this week, the high court suspended a directive by the Ministry of Education requiring parents to pay school fees through the eCitizen’s 222222 PayBill number. 

This is the latest in a slew of legal challenges putting the spotlight on the platform with critics pointing out an opacity in the management of billions in revenues collected, high convenience fees charged and lack of adequate data protection safeguards. 

 

In the last two audit reports, the Office of the Auditor General has given an adverse opinion of the eCitizen accounts stating that public resources were not applied lawfully or effectively and that the platform had inadequate internal controls and risk management systems. 

Some of the discrepancies noted by the Auditor General include inconsistencies between the amount of money reported to have been transferred from the eCitizen platform and the amount received by state agencies. 

In the financial year 2019/2020 for example, financial statements indicate that Sh8.4 billion was transferred from eCitizen to the State Department of Interior. However, records at the State Department of interior indicate that Sh8.3 billion was received, resulting in an unexplained difference of Sh171 million. 

Similarly, records indicate that the eCitizen transferred Sh1.1 billion to the National Transport and Safety Authority, NTSA for the year ended June 2020. The Authority’s financial books however indicate that the authority received Sh1 billion, a difference of more than Sh28 million. 

County governments have also been affected by the discrepancies. In the financial year ended June 2022, Kisumu County recorded a difference of Sh8 million between the funds reportedly transferred from eCitizen to that received by the county’s coffers. 

This has raised concern that some state agencies, ministries and departments could record less collections than they previously did before integrating their payments through eCitizen. 

Other anomalies reported by the Auditor General include opaque banking transactions where the government failed to provide supporting documents or audit. 

In the financial year ended June 2020 for example, the Auditor General reported that bank accounts and reconciliation statements of six accounts holding Sh1.3 billion in eCitizen revenue were not provided for audit. 

“Only two cash books were provided for audit review which were not uniquely identified by account name, account number and bank name making it impossible to relate the cash books to respective bank accounts with some entries in the cash books outside the reporting period,” explains the Auditor General. 

There is also mounting criticisms that the Sh50 in convenience fees charged for every eCitizen transaction is too high and puts some government services beyond the reach of low-income earners. 

The convenience fee was initially supposed to cater for overheads associated with operational and support costs during the pilot period such as hosting on Amazon’s cloud service, subscriptions to SMS short codes and operations for support staff. 

However, the recent move to onboard hundreds of other public departments on eCitizen has raised questions over its rationale.  

For example, the entry fees to the Arboretum Park in Nairobi is pegged at Sh65 for Kenyan adults. Paying through the eCitizen platform almost doubles this as park visitors pay an extra Sh50 in convenience fees and more in transaction charges. 

This has raised concern that other key sectors could be affected such as prices for university meals and fees paid at public health centres that will increase to factor in the convenience fees. 

At the same time the Public Financial Management Act indicates that no new charges can be introduced on public services without passing the requisite legislative amendments and involving members of the public. 

The disquiet over the convenience fees has further been heightened by the opacity over how the billions collected each year is managed. 

For the past six years, the management of eCitizen has been at the centre of a protracted legal dispute pitting two private companies that claim ownership of the platform.  

Goldrock Capital and Webmasters Kenya, two little-known firms are at the centre of the dispute with their founders both claiming to have developed and deployed the eCitizen portal. 

The case has dragged on in court for the better part of the past six years and despite the renewed vigor by the State to harmonise all digital payments, there is no resolution. It is still unknown whether these companies have access to the money in eCitizen and the back end of the platform. 

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