Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Accountability, Coordination and Participation Challenge in the Devolved System

Picking from the previous post and still on public finances, accountability in the use of resources was expected to be and has indeed been a challenge. There have been cases of corruption in almost every county and sector. How do we ensure that the county leaderships do not run the county accounts dry? especially as they prepare for next elections? What about those who do not expect to win the elections and thus are trying to recoup their cash by whatever means. Yet the capacity and role of the respective county assemblies to provide has not been as strong in dealing with oversight issues. In a rising practice of perdiemocracy (where all public engagements are reduced to what brings perdiem/allowances i.e. travel, meetings out of duty station, unnecessary meetings) and tenderprenuership (the angling through proxies for public contracts by public officials who should not benefit from such) how do we ensure that the MCAs and key county officials rise above. Are the County Assemblies as currently constituted able to execute their oversight role? Do they have the necessary capacity? Do they have the necessary incentive and public pressure to conduct their work without fear and favour? I hold the view that one of the ways to address corruption is to reduce the premium placed on elective and senior appointed offices in the public sector. That would reduce the resources one has to spend to get to these positions. These are critical questions that we need to reflect on as we enter into the fourth year of devolved government. Finances will remain limited buts it’s the commitment to get the most out of what we have that will see us develop our country. 

At an operational level in county governments, it was expected that there would be an urgent matter of clarifying who was responsible for what. This was at different levels, between the county and national government ministries and agencies, between county government and constituency development fund, and between the county executive and county assembly. Coming from a regime where legislators were actively involved in service delivery (through CDF and LATF) and without clear information for those aspiring for this positions we foresaw a conflict in at least four lines: between County Assembly Members and Governor; Governor and MPs (who were likely to continue to influence CDF); Governor and Officers of the National Government; and Governors and Non-State Actors who provide certain services especially should governors want to exercise control over who operates in their jurisdictions. Notably the intergovernmental frameworks in place do not bring on board MPs and NSAs in discussing devolution matters. 

In what one can call a system keen on putting enough checks and balances, the constitution of Kenya created numerous institutions at national and county level. As such coordination is proving to be a big challenge. We have in mind the various commissions; will each of them have an office in each county? Or how will they operate and who meets their costs? Secondly is the coordination between County Governments and State Coorporations and Semi Autonomous Government Agencies (SAGAs) in the various sectors whose core functions have been devolved. For instance how will National Cereal and Produce Board (NCPB) work with all counties to ensure that there is sufficient grain reserve? And do counties decide how and where to sell their grains as well as import if they so wish? This are the questions receiving silent treatment as each body seeks to maintain its former jursidiction and leading to county governments crying foul. 

The awareness and capacity of the public to effectively participate in governance of their areas remains wanting. Not only is there inadequate information on devolution and the roles of county governments and the elected representatives among the citizens is a worrying concern. The process of rolling out a comprehensive civic education programme has been long and patchy at best. With such a lacuna the public is left to the mercy of sensational news items of all that is not going right. This presents a challenge when it comes to demanding for accountability from the elected leaders as the citizen can best demand for transparency and accountability when they are fully informed and ready to engage meaningfully with their county governments. I think not all persons in key positions want the public educated as that would expose their true roles and hence greater demands, but even then there must be action from those keen for a functional system.

A final and in no way the least challenge is around further decentralization within county governments. While the main attention is on the transfer of power, functions and resources from National to County Governments, there is a danger that we may have created new “central governments” based at county headquarters. The County Government Act 2012 and Cities and Urban Areas Act 2012 provide mechanisms for further decentralization within counties. The persons responsible at these units are to be appointed by the governor and County Public Service Boards. They also need to be facilitated with enough resources to carry out their work. There is not much we are hearing on this and yet it will determine how well services reach the people at the lowest level. The process of establishing and gazetting the units of further decentralization needs to be on top of County Assembly agendas. Infact if the current county governments will be of value in posterity then they should ensure they establish this mechanisms of moving services closer to the people. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Cash challenge and use in the 3 years of devolution

In April 2016 we will congregate in the Meru county for the 3rd Devolution Conference. There we will reflect on what has become of our national experiment and to what extent we have been true to the ideals of decentralization that saw us favour it as an appropriate model for advancing our country. On the eve of the first devolved units, Chrispine Oduor and thought about some of the challenges that county governments were likely to face. I reflect on some of them in the upcoming pieces.

An upfront challenge was on finances, in terms of raising sufficient cash and using it in the right and accountable way.  A key principle in the constitution Art. 175 is that counties will have a reliable source of revenue. The said resources are to be used in an accountable way (Art. 201). Counties have at their exposure about four revenue streams – the equitable share from the national revenue; own revenues from taxes and fees charged from services rendered; Conditional grants from the national government for specific services; and borrowing from domestic and international sources. Certain counties are also likely to benefit from the national government equalization fund (Art. 204) that is supposed to help bring services such as infrastructure and electricity to standards enjoyed in other parts of the country. Own revenue collection was going to be a challenge especially those with a weak resource base to raise enough revenues that will enable them perform the devolved functions and deliver services to the citizen was a concern given the weak performance of Local authorities that preceded them. The equalization fund was likely to be so thinly spread. One expected that the county governments would seal the revenue loopholes through automation and updating of asset rolls.

On use the available cash would be strained by the wagebill and other overheads. While we expected counties to ensure better service delivery, the conversation on the controls for the county wage bill needed to take place. First there was the concern of balance between state officers (Governor, the CEC members and the CA members) and public officers (civil servants) pay as this would serve as a motivation factor and may affect service delivery. Secondly is mechanisms of ensuring that the wage bill is sustainable but at the same time lucrative enough to attract highly skilled professionals into those positions. In the event that the wage bill is uncontrolled then we may end with the current scenario of Las spending up to 90 per cent of their revenue on salaries and salary areas (part of debts). The expectation was that the recommendations of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission would be taken seriously and implemented. In practice we have seen such recommendations opposed by politicians who instead pushed for highly unsustainable wages and the attendant allowances. Not to mention the corruption that comes with it.

The equitable share was going to be complicated by lack of clarity on the devolved functions and which of the two governments is supposed to perform which functions. While the constitution broadly stipulated the functions of either government, the actual work lay in the unbundling of functions. This is a task that the Transition Authority (TA) attempted with limited success given what they termed lack of cooperation from the national government (NG) ministries. Of course it was expected that some of the NG actors would push back. But why should this be? The constitution principle provides that finance follows functions, which means that resources would be allocated to the government performing the function. I imagine that some NG officials worried that a proper unbundling process would reveal that some functions were redundant, duplicated or at most delivered at the county level. This would mean that resources are allocated to the counties and thus loss of control. I also think that some corrupt tendencies thrive on confusion as money gets allocated to the same purpose through different channels. Lastly I have often wondered to what extent the county officials were interested in the unbundling business. Would it make them more susceptible to accountability demands by laying bare what they are responsible for and hence the resources they have allocated to them.    

A related matter was on debt management. County Governments inherited debts and other liabilities, local authorities and other bodies such as the regional water service boards- that provide water services in the rural and urban areas- had already incurred. These boards had been obtaining loans to provide services and county governments to take up these liabilities. That affected the starting balance sheet of counties.  The expected increase in wage bill would inevitably lead to more borrowing. This means that the national government will increasingly commit more resources to service the loans and hence can only increase county allocations so far up. There is no indication since that the county governments have been able to address the debt challenge. If anything some have been considering to borrow much more.

We have observed numerous debates every year on the amount of the equitable share that should be allocated to counties. This has been reduced a political fight that is settled politically as the numbers are not based on some firm functions performance structure. Internal revenue collection while expanding remains not sufficient. This partly is due to poor records and corruption. Automation has been slow and in some places the process objected in courts due to flouting of tendering processes. To what extent Kenyans are committed to pay taxes and public service user fees remains to be established, especially in situations where they are not very satisfied with services rendered. As for wage bill and attendant allowances is high and unsustainable.

Continued in the next blog post..

Friday, January 1, 2016

Lessons from 2015: Courage, Patience and Learning to ask

Happy New Year!!

At the beginning of every year I take time to reflect on the state of me. I reflect on who I have become in the past year and what I need to focus on in the current year. My assessments, maybe just like yours, do not always reveal great achievements. Sometimes it’s more of what I never achieved that really takes the center of attention. This I realize does more of making me feel like I am not making progress. Yet when I look at what I achieved even beyond what I had planned, I am surprised. I notice ideas, projects, relationships and much more that had happened that I never thought or imagined would take place.

As I look back at 2015- one important lesson stands out. Courage and Patience is key to success. For it takes more than knowledge and mastery of content to make it in life. One needs patience and the courage to step out and stand out. Nothing great comes easy and fast. This has been mostly the reality of my current status of graduate school. Writing a PhD dissertation in Public Management has been a long desire for me, so I was very excited to begin in October 2014. The later part of 2014 was spent settling into the graduate school, but it is in 2015 that the real test came.

All along I had imagined I knew what I wanted to research and write on but it soon dawned on me that this was not one of those projects I had handled before. It turned to be a daily effort of trying to wake up, putting a courageous attitude and patiently reading, writing and discussing with colleagues. The real test was in May-June when I needed to finalize and submit my proposal for review. This would determine whether I continue with my research or I get out. Day after day I felt more and more confused as to what I was actually doing. The long hours of walking in the dark with a faint light pushed my patience limits to the very edge. I finally submitted my work and attended my defence on 22 July 2015. It was the longest day ever. As I presented my work and received a dozen comments on how to improve it, I felt relieved that it was over but even more burdened that most of the work was still ahead.

A related lesson has been learning to ask and ask. An ego problem one faces in graduate school is the sense that you should know what you are doing and be an expert in it. Thus many a person has sat on their desk trying to make ends on their own. I quickly learnt that I had to ask anyone I thought would be of help. After all the worst they can do, is refuse to help. That has saved me on many days of darkness.

This lessons I realize apply to all aspects of my life and I will apply them wherever I go. I am not yet where I had planned to be by this time but am at peace with the progress. So I start 2016 ready to work patiently with confidence that the sweat of my labor shall one day be rewarded.

Some thoughts on future of Universities and Scholarship

It was my pleasure to give input on this topic at the just concluded DAAD Young Scholars in Africa Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya. As one...