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January 23, 2019

Will The New Government Save Kenyans Any Money?

A few years ago, I read Njenga Karume’s autobiography. He had worked with a proper writer, and I found the book quite a good read. Of course I thought there were many things that would have been worth investigating more closely, but it was an autobiography – by definition, this was Mr Karume’s version of history.

Amongst the things that made me raise an eyebrow was an anecdote how he lobbied for one of his friends to be nominated MP. The intriguing thing was that he mentioned that his friend was illiterate. Now I appreciate a friend who has your back, but you’d think that being able to read is quite useful for a legislator.

However, decades later, it appears that this problem persists. I’ve had this suspicion with the last bunch of MPs already: They pass all sorts of laws for the new constitution, and then they end reversing or watering down a good part of those (say, those sensible restrictions on party hopping before elections, for example). What is it – were they unable to read?

It’s just as pronounced with the current new bunch: They apply for a job that had a clear salary level attached to it. This salary level was stated before the elections, so if they felt that this was not sufficient pay, then common sense suggests not applying for this job. Can they not read? I’m also a little baffled by their apparent inability to comprehend.

The people who employed them, i.e. Kenyan citizens, the people who work to pay their salaries through their taxes, have said quite clearly, several times, that no, they don’t want MP salaries to be raised to the previous level. I’m really not sure how these fellows will run anything competently if they can’t read and can’t listen to their employers either. Why is this even a debate? You don’t like the money, don’t take the job.

Also with respect to running things and salaries, I’ve of course followed the presentation of the nominees for the cabinet secretary positions and the ensuing debate. Not holding my breath, I thought, but at least the attempt at a largely technocratic cabinet, whittled down to 18 ministries, made me cautiously optimistic that this might indicate a change in how government is run. Never mind the hangovers from the previous administration, by which I mean the now non-politician politicians.

But at this point, I should really know better than to suspend my well honed cynicism. Let’s leave aside news reports that there might be another two ministries, which means maxing out the constitutionally allowed number of ministries. I think Kenya would probably do perfectly well with 14 ministries and you can see the potential for further streamlining in the announced line up. I was also underwhelmed by the promises of free-this and free-that in Mr Kenyatta’s inauguaration speech – it’s doubtful that those promises would address any of the structural issues. But let’s assume these were merely pretty decorations and the substance is still to come.

The Kenyatta-Ruto presidency faces numerous challenges, but at the core of them is this: a limited amount of money, an already expanded public-sector wage bill through the establishment of the new county governments, and the need to improve the quality of what all those people in government employ put out. It’s easy to be swayed by the seemingly technocratic nature of the cabinet, but this is really just the top layer.

Look again: the nomination of the new principal secretaries (the former permanent secretaries) will be interesting – will this be where political and other favours are being repaid? I also noted that Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto planned to employ special advisors:

An odd decision, given that the matters of running the country will be looked after by the new cabinet secretaries and also their new principal secretaries. Another way of repaying favours? What is the point of finally cutting the size of government down from the hugely wasteful proportions of the 2008 Grand Coalition if you then dish out positions, and crank up public spending, through those ‘special advisors’ again?

The beginning of a government term is when you can take the difficult decisions. Later, you will always have an eye on your re-election, which requires being popular. We’ve heard little of substance about the Provincial Administration. It makes little sense to keep this running in parallel with the county governments – it’s not really a change if you keep dragging the old structures along. Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto have to consolidate the new ministries, and phase out the provincial administration – and while some people will be redeployed, others will simply have to let go. That is where productive change will come from.

And then what about the new county governments? I’m sure there will be handful of governors who take their jobs seriously and actually make a positive change in their countries, but I do worry devolution will mostly end up being a devolution of corruption.

What if county governments spend the money they obtain from the central government as well as the revenues they raise locally on themselves, without creating any value? Then all you end up with is more spending, and not more impact.

So what has really changed? Or is same-old just suddenly more expensive?

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