In the fourth year of devolution, not even half of Kenya’s counties are publishing key budget formulation documents on their websites. Every six months, my organisation evaluates the state of county budget transparency in Kenya by looking at the availability of budget documents online.
Our new results are out, and they show that the state of transparency of key budget documents needed during budget formulation remains poor, though marginally better than last year.
In the mid-year round of our assessment, we check for documents that are key inputs into the budget formulation process, including the Annual Development Plan, the County Fiscal Strategy Paper, the third-quarter budget implementation report and the tabled budget estimates. T
his year, we also looked for a Citizens Budget, a simple non-technical version of the budget, which is a requirement under the 2015 Public Financial Management Act regulations.
The worst performance continues to be for budget implementation reports; we found no examples of these on county websites. The third-quarter implementation report is important as it is the most recent information available on how well the current year’s budget is being implemented. Information about budget implementation challenges in the current year should play a role in setting the coming year’s budget.
We also found only one example of something we could consider a Citizens’ Budget in Nyamira County, though it was not labelled as such. In the future, we will set higher standards for what constitutes a Citizens’ Budget, including an explicit title and narrative aimed at citizens.
There was somewhat better performance for Annual Development Plans, of which we found 11, compared with just four in our search last year. The best performance was for the budget estimates (22 published versus 14 last year) and the County Fiscal Strategy Papers, of which we found 21 (up from 18 last year).
Arguably, there are other papers we should be checking for as well at this time, such as debt management strategy papers and cash flow projections. Although we did not look for these, experience suggests that few counties have produced and published them.
While online availability is just one metric of transparency, we think it is a pretty good one for several reasons. First, while not everyone in Kenya has Internet access, Internet penetration is in fact quite high. The Economic Survey 2016 claims that 36 million Kenyans have access to the Internet, which is a clear indication that its usage is not confined to a few large cities.
Internet access does not mean everyone is using it to read county documents, but there is often no way to get most county documents physically, even for interested and well-connected citizens. I have personally been denied county budget documents for months even by counties whose documents I was invited to edit!
Putting things online remains the best way to ensure that access is not discretionary, and is available to everyone. In Kenya today, you may not have a connection, but you can get to an Internet café or know someone who can.
If a document is online, it can be downloaded, printed and distributed the old-fashioned way, and it often is. Or bits and pieces of it can be shared via WhatsApp and text messages, which nearly everyone uses.
Finally, while it is true that some rural and marginalised counties have very poor websites, and that northern and northeastern counties fare poorly in our survey, it is also true that more urban and cosmopolitan counties have poor websites with little content. It is therefore not obvious that the metric we are using is particularly biased.
Why should counties with strong Internet presence like Mombasa, Kisumu and Uasin Gishu have only one or no documents available on their websites? Why should they be bested by counties like Bomet, Kisii, Taita Taveta or Elgeyo Marakwet? These results reflect poor choices by leadership, not lack of Internet or interest among residents.
The plain fact is that as the county governments trumpet their commitments to open government and open data, basic information is simply not available. I am often asked what “innovation” the government can pursue in the interests of greater transparency. Unless website management is considered an innovation, what we need is actually less talk about innovation and more uploading of basic documents.
As of the writing of this article, the national line item budget supporting the programme-based budget is still not available on the National Treasury’s website. The most recent medium-term debt management paper online is two years old, and only the first 11 pages are available. The Treasury also does not have its most recent (third quarter) budget implementation report online, putting it in the same class as the counties.
Jason Lakin is Kenya country director for the International Budget Partnership. E-mail: [email protected]