Rein in Kenya’s big government

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Rein in Kenya’s big government


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President Uhuru Kenyatta chairing a past cabinet meeting. PHOTO PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • The notion of a professional civil service composed of technocratic staff serving non-partisan interests died many years ago.
  • We are spending more of the resources at our disposal on managing and circulating existing wealth than on activities that create new wealth.
  • Parliament, the Judiciary, the Presidency and county governments have expanded massively.

What type and shape of the public service workforce are we likely to see after President Uhuru Kenyatta leaves the scene, given the way party coalitions are shaping up?

Going by the trends and political formations, it seems to me that the system and practice of appointing top civil servants, principal secretaries and managing directors of key parastatals through patronage is likely to be entrenched by the outcome of the August elections.

We could end up with too many chief administrative secretaries and principal secretaries. Political acquiescence will be purchased at a very high price. It is a worrisome prospect because pork-barrel politics has had a corrosive impact on the effectiveness of public service.

The notion of a professional civil service composed of technocratic staff serving non-partisan interests died many years ago.

We must pray that we do not end up with a bigger government after August. I say so because we are already spending a disproportionate share of tax revenues on the political sector and related institutions.

When you analyze the expenditure patterns of the budget that Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani will be presenting to Parliament next week, the picture is that of a country that devotes a disproportionate share of tax revenues on emoluments and debt service relative to operations and maintenance of service .

And, we have a capital expenditure budget that is way below what we spend on recurrent expenses.

Put differently, we are spending more of the resources at our disposal on managing and circulating existing wealth than on activities that create new wealth.

Clearly, the government has become too big. Parliament, the Judiciary, the Presidency and county governments have expanded massively. We have too many ministries, state departments and statutory and constitutional commissions staffed by highly paid bureaucrats.

Another big consumer of resources is the category known as Constitutional Fund Services – money spent on servicing public debt and salaries of constitutional officeholders.

Consolidated Fund Services consume too much money. We are paying dearly for the rapid accumulation of expensive commercial debts in our books. And, we are facing the specter of a pension bomb.

In the third category of the big consumer of resources in the new public expenditure program, Mr Ukur Yatani will be presenting to Parliament next week is autonomous government agencies such as public universities, publicly funded research bodies, and regional authorities.

It is paradoxical indeed that even as we devote billions to public universities, our universities are broken and insolvent. Pension schemes for staff of universities are among the largest in the retirement benefits industry.

Yet literally all of them have accumulated huge unpaid liabilities and have ended up with huge actuarial gaps. Universities are just not remitting pension deductions promptly. The constituency development fund also ranks high in the big consumer of resources.

I am waiting to hear a presidential candidate promising to restructure the public service, reduce the number of ministries and state departments and reorganize government around a few core functions. Today, the civil service is full of individuals who owe their jobs to politicians and power brokers.

The civil service bureaucracy is overpopulated with the so-called private sector technocrats – individuals parachuted into the system to occupy high-profile positions, especially in the framework of principal secretaries.

The Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development has a total of five principal secretaries. And it comes with expensively carpeted offices and fuel-guzzling monsters.

When you cram the civil service bureaucracy with too many people from the private sector yet to imbibe what business school wonks call esprit de corp, you will have created a perfect environment for bureaucratic lethargy.

In the long run, we will have to embark on aggressive civil service reform. Our ambition must be how to restore a non-partisan and professional civil service.

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