Ideas & Debate

How the government has made great strides in embracing new technology

President Kibaki and Information PS Bitange Ndemo (centre) listen as Symbiotic CEO Mbugua Njihia explains how his medical software works during the launch of e-government web portal in July 2011. In the past, ICT was only mentioned in passing but now it is an integral part of public policy debate. Photo/File
President Kibaki and Information PS Bitange Ndemo (centre) listen as Symbiotic CEO Mbugua Njihia explains how his medical software works during the launch of e-government web portal in July 2011. In the past, ICT was only mentioned in passing but now it is an integral part of public policy debate. Photo/File 

Stimulated by reading Martin Oduor-Otieno’s biography, Beyond the Shadow of My Dreams, in my last article I reflected on the impressive culture transformation that occurred during his time as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance as part of the turn-of-the-century dream team.

Today, I take you back to the much talked about national planning process of his day, the PRSP (Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper).

In those miserable years “planning” had more to do with how to extract money from the increasingly crumbling State institutions than with how to build a nation.

It reached a point where development partners, and not least the World Bank and the IMF, concluded that as our government was insufficiently committed to the prudent management of national resources there was no point allocating funds to Kenya.

Here, as all over Africa and in developing countries around the world, the World Bank promoted the rolling out of its three-year PRSP planning framework as one of the conditions to be fulfilled if it was to support projects.

It provided the funding, and serious public engagement was made a fundamental condition. Eight sectors of the economy were identified to be studied, and for the first time in Kenya, ICT was to be among them.

Sector Working Groups were assembled for each of the eight, with representation encouraged from both government and the private sector.

I was asked to join the one for ICT, which was chaired by another member of the dream team, then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport and Communications Titus Naikuni.

As Mr Oduor-Otieno’s biography reveals, Mr Naikuni was beset with many immediate major issues to handle, so he was hardly ever able to attend our meetings. But he was a great champion for ICT, and offered the needed top-level leadership.

Until that time, to the extent that ICT featured on the national agenda it was restricted to the “C” in the middle, and that was mainly to do with the long uphill struggle to privatise the monopoly State telecommunications provider.

So we came up with a four-pronged approach to comprehensive ICT strategy development, comprising policy, legislation and regulation; infrastructure and infostructure; e-government; and human capacity building.

Our convener was Juma Okech, the Director of the Government IT Service, who offered excellent strategic input (he has since passed away), and active participation came largely from a few of us from the private sector, accompanied by several largely passive civil servants.

What a great example of learning by doing this was. It was a wonderful experience, learning from those in the public sector.

We duly produced our report, and I and my colleagues felt good about what we had created —from scratch. The report was due to be presented by our chairman Titus Naikuni to the PRSP Committee on the afternoon of March 28th 2001.

But at lunchtime, on that day he was fired, so he never made it to the meeting. Not only did we find ourselves orphaned, but we soon learned that a new government body, the unfortunately named National Communications Secretariat was established—expressly to produce an ICT policy.

It decided to keep to itself, interacting neither with the Government IT Service nor with the private sector, thus leaving our PRSP Sector Working Group lost and lifeless.

The PRSP was an excellent document, put together by thoughtful and informed men and women from across the economy, largely from government but with significant business input in sectors like ICT.

David Nalo (now sadly, like Mr Okech, no longer with us) agreed.

In the Mr Oduor-Otieno’s biography his assessment was that “the PRSP was to become one of Martin’s most exciting and important deliveries”.

But by the time it was published the country was gearing up for the 2002 election, and so the already limited appetite for pursuing policy issues completely disappeared.

There was, however, life after death… eventually. Within a couple of months of taking power at the beginning of 2003 the new government convened the milestone Economic Recovery Conference in Mombasa, and prior to our arrival a draft version of the Economic Recovery Strategy (ERS) was distributed.

Once more ICT was only mentioned in the context of telecommunications, and rather cursorily at that.

As a result, and to my great relief, in the final ERS document the key needed elements regarding ICT policy were decently featured. (Credit here for their open-mindedness goes to then Planning Minister Anyang Nyong’o and his then PS, Mr Nalo.)

Nonetheless, the National Communications Secretariat remained obstinately secretive and reclusive, within its protective home at the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

And the private sector was firmly put in its place by Minister John Michuki, who once told me that the government was the one to determine policy, while the role of operators was to operate.

It was only a couple of years later, thanks in part to consistent private sector lobbying, that ICT was allowed its own ministerial home and hence permanent national focus.

It’s now difficult to imagine how hard and for how long we had to struggle for our leaders to take ICT and its usage seriously.

Difficult to remember the days before Vision 2030, when national planning— never mind over such a time span —was virtually non-existent.

And difficult to envisage life before Kepsa and its sector components, when for the private sector to engage with government was selective at best and in many sectors all but non-existent.

So let us celebrate all that PRSP taught us over 20 years ago— about national planning, about private sector engagement, and about ICT.