Who’s afraid of Machakos County? Not I, given their peculiar budgeting habits

Saturday July 12 2014

 

By Jason Lakin

What should we think about Machakos? On the one hand, there is the hype that this is the fastest-moving, most efficient county in Kenya, with a governor who is setting a bar so high few of his colleagues can reach it.

On the other hand, there are numerous tales of a county that is closed to the public and media, where asking questions is forbidden and where following the rule of law is seen as an unnecessary impediment to progress.

So, what kind of county is Machakos? I tried to look at this question as objectively as possible from the perspective of the county’s budget. Here is what I found.

Let’s start with local revenue collections. One thing many counties did wrong in their first year was to overestimate how much they would collect from local revenues.

This has the effect of producing budgets with no apparent deficit, but which actually have an implicit deficit. Machakos had a revenue target for 2013/14 of Ksh2.5 billion. In the first three quarters of the year, it has collected only Ksh866 million of this. It would take nothing short of a miracle to collect the remaining 66 per cent of target in a single quarter.

Although Machakos has done relatively well in collecting revenue compared with previous local authority estimates, it has still exaggerated its revenue capacity in its first financial year.

The Machakos governor has often implied that the county’s spending priorities are more in line with the needs of the county than is the case in other counties. How would we assess this?

When it comes to the budget for domestic and foreign travel, Machakos budgeted more than any other county in the country (Ksh524 million). Machakos also budgeted more than any other county for purchase of vehicles (Ksh714 million).

To be fair, Machakos has a relatively large overall budget, but it is not larger than the budget of Turkana, Nairobi, Mombasa or other counties with lower expenditure on these items. It may be that county residents believe travel and vehicles are more important in Machakos than elsewhere, but that isn’t obvious.

Machakos has done relatively well on budget execution, spending 44 per cent of total budget by the end of the third quarter. That isn’t great by normal standards (that is the type of figure we might expect after two quarters), but it is better than all but a few other counties.

When it comes to budget process issues, anecdotal evidence suggests that Machakos has fallen short on transparency and participation.

One way to objectively assess this is to look at the budget documents it has produced against standards. When we reviewed the 2014 Machakos County Fiscal Strategy Paper (CFSP) in March, we found that it did not contain expenditure ceilings.

To paraphrase the Speaker of the Uasin Gishu Assembly in a recent training session, a fiscal strategy paper without ceilings is not a fiscal strategy paper, but just a piece of paper that says “Fiscal Strategy” on the front.

When a CFSP doesn’t contain expenditure ceilings, it undermines the entire budget process. Other counties like Homa Bay, Kiambu, Nyeri and Vihiga all got this right; Machakos was behind the curve.

In reviewing this year’s budget proposal from Machakos, I note that the county has shifted to programme-based budgeting, as required by the PFM Act.

One question we ask of county budgets is whether they have budgeted enough to maintain key services like health. According to our estimates, the recurrent budget for health in 2012/13 in Machakos was Ksh1.1 billion.

In 2013/14, the county budgeted Ksh183 million for its recurrent health budget. This may be because it put all health worker salaries under the executive (poor practice, but relatively common in 2013/14).

In this year’s proposed budget, the figure for recurrent health rocketed up to Ksh1.3 billion, potentially enough to cover ongoing expenditure. Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of health salaries (over Ksh1 billion) are now in “general administration and planning.”

Is that because Machakos has decided to fire health workers and replace them with health administrators? I doubt it. It rather reflects incompetence in programme budgeting: you don’t put all of your health workers under administration, just like you don’t put them all under “executive services.”

Once again, this is the same mistake many counties have made in 2014/15, one that substantially undermines the transparency and credibility of the budget.

What should we take from all of this? I have singled out Machakos because Machakos has singled itself out. The evidence collected here doesn’t suggest to me that Machakos should be viewed in a particularly bad light. It suggests rather that Machakos is pretty typical of the county experience so far.

Miraculous? No. Menacing? Not really. Just decidedly mediocre.

Jason Lakin is a senior programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership. E-mail: [email protected]