Why we are getting it all wrong in graft war

Ideas & Debate

Why we are getting it all wrong in graft war

public finance management
It is fashionable today to blame our budget, and public finance management (PFM), process. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In deference to the subjudice rule, everything you read from this point onwards bears no relation to a real-life, high-profile court case about two mega dams —- Arror and Kimwarer — that have never, might never, and still do not exist.

Let’s instead revisit Kenya’s war on corruption; a war on deception and thievery as an ingrained habit, not pillage and theft as episodic actions. Let’s take a peek behind the kleptomania we observe.

It is fashionable today to blame our budget, and public finance management (PFM), process. Yet, the truth is that Kenyans are blissfully unaware of the true state of PFM meltdown not because of what we know, but what we don’t.

We don’t have a publicly available report from the Auditor-General on the 2017/18 national government accounts, though we have reports for all counties. Yes, that’s the national “mega report” that covers the extended 2017 election period when public spending was most likely “fair game”. We could also refer to recent Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) assessments. Simply, PEFA reviews a country’s PFM system along seven dimensions — budget credibility; comprehensiveness and transparency; policy-based budgeting; predictability and control in budget execution; accounting, recording and reporting; external oversight and legislative scrutiny; and donor practices.

Kenya’s last PEFA was performed in 2018. According to the PEFA website, this report is “not available to the public”. Previous 2008 and 2012 reports were. The 2012 report hammered us on policy-based budgeting, internal controls, actual reporting and independent oversight, and rated us as “broadly average” on the rest. Given what we know about our fiscal drama between 2013 and 2017, does the 2018 report say we’ve gotten worse?

Public Expenditure Reviews (PERs) might also help clarify our spending problem. However, the latest (comprehensive) one, published in December 2018, is a “happy clappy” tome that celebrates devolution, downplays the excess “budget shadow” of national government, rambles along about fiscal incidence rather than taxes for service and ignores the debt crisis we face. Basically, reports that matter aren’t available, while available reports don’t matter. This state of PFM opacity (freedom of information, anyone?) offers the ideal space in which deliberate chaos thrives.

Chaos is what happens when we treat the national values and principles in our constitution as proposals. It is the result of a planning, budgeting and implementation process that elevates projects and procurement above policy, programmes and performance.

When pursued consistently over time, this process hoodwinks the public into gauging politicians’ performance by inputs – “things built or bought” (more schools, hospitals, dams and roads) – not outcomes (better education and health provision, clean and reliable water or power, and eased access to services and markets) which might not necessarily require the aforementioned inputs.

Indeed, the quickest way to establish whether or not any public project makes sense is to probe the outcome it’s supposed to deliver (and whether this outcome could be achieved more effectively and efficiently). The public way to make sure good projects are delivered is to demand accountability.

That Kenya is not yet an “outcomes” nation reflects the bureaucratic-administrative, as opposed to policy-programmatic, nature of a state designed not to be accountable. At state HQs in the Presidency, Interior and National Treasury, no “mega-funny stuff” happens without someone’s knowledge.

Would digitisation help? Only if we fix the mess before we automate it. What about criminal justice remedies? That’s where we are today, eager for court decisions that punish, but don’t necessarily deter or reform. Do we then turn to morals, and religion? Not if the sector’s already been captured.

Should we now audit the entire external debt register? Most definitely. Accountability matters for Kenyans. Learning matters too, provided we approach the audit with a problem-solving mindset. Civil society could play an important role in this effort.

What of the forthcoming Public Finance Management reform strategy? It’s only useful if it begins with root and branch reform of our fossilised National Treasury to instill fresh processes, systems, structures, skills, but mostly, fresh values, culture and behavior. Think “team effort”, not “one man show”.

In truth, however, the overall war on corruption must go further, towards the sort of committed and enlightened political leadership that happens when nobody is watching, rather than the current “spray and pray” melodrama of “arrests flowing, heads rolling and the people ogling” that makes headlines.

In short, fix the politics, and the economics flows, as does the fiscus. For the umpteenth time I ask, why don’t we simply implement the list of demands, not suggestions, that we call the Constitution, anyone?

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