A couple of weeks ago the Auditor General stated in a 361-page report that the Kenyan government can only lawfully account for 1.2% of its spending for the financial year 2013-2014. Just to give a sense of numbers – the government budget last year was a shade above KES 1,000,000,000,000. That’s a trillion bob! This news is alarming, although not entirely unexpected. The government watchdog also found that 60% of all government spending (over 600 billion shillings) had “issues” (read “unlawful”) and the remaining 39%, he could not confirm if it was lawful and efficiently done.
The uproar on social media is not just symbolic of the anger at grand graft (supposedly) but even more so of the opacity of the process by which government accounts for it’s spending. Personally, I find it hard to take in the fact that the Auditor-General could not determine whether 39% of expenditure is lawful or not. This is not to say I am at peace with the 60% that is clearly murky, but it speaks to two things: what are the criteria by which we determine what is lawful spending and what is not and b) why is that criteria not enforced?
For most people outside (and even within) the debate about government expenditure, the above questions constitute a stark limiting truth. To add insult to injury, we do not have a panel of information on which we can overlay this supposed definition of lawful spending in order to derive meaning to deepen this debate.
One may argue that that is the Auditor-General’s purview. After all, he is the second-most highly paid civil servant after the Attorney General for that very reason!
I beg to differ – the government spends taxpayers’ money and in cases where it uses other sources of funding, the citizenry of this country backstop it. However, in the self-preserving nature of government, it inherently thrives under circumstances of information asymmetry. It seems like the less the citizen knows about the government, the easier it is for government to carry out business (the legalities might not be considered). This is a paradigm that needs to change. If indeed that citizens of this country are its primary stakeholders (I am assuming they are), then all government contractual obligations and documentation need to be in public domain. The details of the transactions which the government is involved are extremely crucial. We need it in order to enforce governance and accountability. The conversation needs to shift from “the government cannot lawfully vouch for 39% of its expenditure” to “such and such state corporation or county government cannot lawfully vouch for its expenditure in 2013/2014.”
Publishing all government procurement data is as good a move as any. And here is why: if the government and its constituent arms can tell us what tenders they have floated, under what designation (open, restricted or single-sourced), how much was procured, for how much – then we stand a better chance of actually pinpointing what the source of the rot is. The Auditor-General’s mandate has him produce an annual review of government expenditure. That is way too drawn out to effectively monitor expenditure. If the data is produced updated on a monthly basis, then the truth around about who’s compliant with procurement expenditure guidelines will be more readily available to the public. We need the monitoring model flipped on its head – from a singular monitoring system to a crowd-sourced approach – one where data scientists, students and professionals can be part of; one where farmers, government officials and the clergy can effectively contribute.
The writer is a development nerd with interests lying at the intersection of technology, big data and policy. He is currently an analyst at @GroIntel and graduated from Harvard in 2012. Twitter: @ken_mukuna