Smooth State's digital services first to generate more revenue

 

Passport applicants at the Immigration Department at Nyayo House, Nairobi on August 31, 2023. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

I have said this before, but, to repeat, one of the less acclaimed highlights of the Kenya Kwanza administration’s tenure to date has been its rapid on-boarding of public services onto the e-citizen portal. Reports are also flowing about massive growth in e-citizen revenues in recent months.

But which comes first, the service or the revenue? Are we missing an opportunity to truly re-engineer government for the citizenry? This column begins to surface these questions, but let us start the story at the beginning.

Although the data changes all the time, the narrative is clear. In recent Mashujaa Day and the State of the Nation addresses, President William Ruto spoke about “more than” 13,000 services, with an end-December 2023 target to onboard “all” public services. Then last week we read that the administration started off with less than 400 e-citizen services and the progress is such that we now have “over 16,000”. 

This came from a reported meeting between the national executive leadership and 17 agencies who were yet to fully comply with President Ruto’s “single M-Pesa paybill” directive for all government services.

Ambitious numbers

Let’s remember it was as recently as end-June that the President formally launched this digital government agenda, with the services on-boarded by then at 5,084. In mid-September, we learnt that this number had grown to 7,453, with another 6,817 partially-digitised (implying a universe of digital services at the time of 14,270). By early October, officials were announcing 10,513 services on e-citizen, with another 5,184 being readied, raising the service universe to 15,697. We will return to these fascinating numbers later.

Because there is another set of e-citizen numbers that should merit our attention - revenues.  In early October, we read that e-citizen revenues crossed the Sh2 billion monthly mark for the first time ever in August, when Sh2.4 billion was collected. This number dropped slightly to Sh2.3 billion in September. Notably, however, these numbers were significantly higher than reported collections of Sh1.4 billion and Sh1.5 billion in April and July respectively. This is all 2023 data, where the more surprising number was that – with far fewer digital services – e-citizen collections hit Sh1.6 billion in January.

Just so we are up to speed with all of the numbers, we got later reporting by officials stating that October collections hit Sh4.2 billion, or three times the Sh1.4 billion raised in June. The latest, from that “17 agencies meeting” is that e-citizen revenue is currently running at Sh281 million a day, which translates to a further jump to between Sh6 billion and Sh8.5 billion a month using 22 working or 30 actual days every month. As a final twist here, the stated revenue target reported from that meeting is Sh1 billion a day.

Actual growth or centralisation?

OK, let’s press the pause button here. Revenue has become a painful word in Kenya today.  Kenyans, already feeling heavily over-taxed and over-levied, are not taking kindly to all manner of new or hiked fees and charges for birth, identification, marriage, death, land transactions, road use and visits to parks and museums, to name just a few. On the other hand, government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are, as recently predicted, taking advantage of our current “revenue moment” to re-imagine themselves as cash-generating enterprises in order to survive because “our taxes are all going to pay debt”. On the face of it, this quadrupled e-citizen revenue target sounds like even more pain for citizens.

As for the actual revenue numbers, one question is whether this astonishing advance is more about the on-boarding of revenues from multiple sources to a centralised one than it is about actual growth. Simply, we still count fees and charges levied on citizens, but now we are counting them from one paybill. 

Second, from history, what happened to “pure” e-citizen revenue generated from the Sh50 user access fee? If we recall numbers from the Jubilee administration, roughly Sh6 billion was generated over a period of 3 to 4 years, presumably from this user fee (basically, 120 million transactions, or up to 100,000 a day).

These might be useful thoughts, but revenue is not our focus today. I have argued before that our non-tax revenue potential could be better exploited – in the same way banks have exploited non-interest income to supplement interest income - provided it is backed by high quality government services. And it is fair that Kenyans remain vigilant on the uses to which these e-citizen, non-tax revenues are put, especially considering well known and documented weaknesses in our public finance management system.

So let’s turn back to services, all 16,000 of them, which we were further told are offered by 250 MDAs. What and which services are these? A quick spot-check of the e-citizen portal on Friday provided some interesting answers. A search of the national government and county government tabs on the portal surfaced a total of 6,672 services; 6,322 under national government and 350 under counties. 

To clarify on the latter, only seven counties had on-boarded some or all of their services to the portal (Bomet with 82 services, Embu (88), Kajiado (82), Kisumu (3), Meru (78), Mombasa (4) and Tharaka-Nithi (13)).  One can see that the “one paybill” idea isn’t attractive to counties, yet, on the other hand, the idea of seamless public service for citizens means it should not matter if it comes from the national or county government. We clearly still have some way to go with our “48 Governments, One Nation” mantra.

What of national government? Well, 6,322 – not 16,000 - services across 191 agencies (the portal’s actual header still reads “over 5,000 services…over 100 MDAs”). Did you know that the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development offers 792 public services? Or that you have a citizen’s menu including 235 services in Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage; 430 in Health; 478 in Environment, Climate Change and Forestry; 544 services from Education; 752 services from the Treasury and 2,015 in Roads and Transport? That’s just seven of the 25 main ministries and agencies, excluding 1,000-odd services in the other 18.

It is tempting to wonder if our Cabinet Secretaries are fully apprised of their extensive service portfolios. Because if they were, they might further realise that many of the services advertised do not actually take the citizen to the services advertised, instead pointing us to general agency websites where navigating the service must start from scratch.

At a more technical level, it does not appear that much thought has been given to differentiating between services and products on one hand, and services and tasks on the other. The bandwidth challenge here is to understand products or services as outputs, not completed activities.

Innovation moment

And accessing the product or service – the form and the procedure - must be a seamless citizen journey.

Paradoxically, this is exactly why Kenya Kwanza’s digital government agenda is a good, not a bad, thing. 

From the progress that has been made, and it is creditable progress, there seems to be a real opportunity to finally re-engineer government from this digital services perspective.

To repeat, instead of obsessing with digitalisation as yet another revenue moment, government might better see this as a real innovation moment – to cut bureaucratic barriers and engage, not exclude, public servants and citizens in idea generation and build trust-based relationships with citizens. Do this first, and revenue will surely come.

Kabaara is a management consultant

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