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Columnists

Austerity bid calls for radical solutions

Parliament buildings
Parliament buildings in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The debate about changing Constitution continues to gain momentum. The Third Way Alliance headed by lawyer Ekuru Aukot recently got a nod from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission for its Bill on amending the Constitution through popular initiative to move to the County Assemblies for debate. Although the courts have issues temporary stop orders for the process, the content of the Bill are worth considering.

Its slogan Punguza Mizigo, is a pointer to the key rationale for the proposals by the initiative. It seeks to reduce the burden on Kenyans. One of the critical issues it deals with is the burden arising from the cost of Government. Three years ago, the office of the Auditor-General led a team of experts to undertake a socio-economic audit of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution. The audit was undertaken at the request of the National Assembly through the Budget and Appropriations Committee.

While the general view at that time was that the new Constitution was expensive and hence need to reduce the numbers of elected representatives to make it more affordable to the Kenyan economy, the audit findings made an interesting finding. It concluded that while there had been an increase in public spending and the wage Bill, it is not attributable to the Constitution or devolution. The main issue flagged out as of concern was wastage by both levels of Government.

Despite this, there is continued public outcry about the costs of representation, especially due to the number of times that the question of salaries and allowances of Members of Parliament come up in the media. It therefore follows that taming the wage bill of Parliament and its related expenditure would be a top issue for discussion in the quest for seeking to reduce the public wage Bill and spending.

However, this proposal, while, one that requires robust consideration does not go to the root cause of the problem of cost of government. As the 2016 Socio-Economic Audit rightly pointed out there is a problem of increased and one may even say unsustainable public spending and wage Bill in Kenya. The state of the Kenyan economy the past two years demonstrates the reason why Kenyans must be concerned about cost of Government generally.

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However, the solution to the problem is less about constitutional reform. There are actions we require to take to tame the rising wage Bill and reduce government expenditure. These can be done within the existing provisions and achieve more desired results without having to change even a single letter of the Constitution.

One of the areas where traction can be had is in the functional unbundling and alignment between the national and county government. While the Constitution provides broad separation of roles between the national and county government, the process of unbundling and costing of these functions has been slow, unsystematic and inconclusive. Consequently, there is still duplication of both staff and expenditure. When one looks at the budgets for counties and for national government you will see similar issues budgeted for at both levels.

Staff rationalisation has also not been undertaken at either level of government. We consequently end up having same function being performed by double the number of staff and finances allocated for it at both levels. This can only result in wastage and the related huge cost of government.

The other critical area is salaries. The level of salary disparities in the public sector is alarming. The Constitution recognised this and the need for its redress. Towards this end it created the Salaries and Remuneration Commission. Its work is difficult.

However, the results of its work are yet to translate to the required harmonisation and containing of the wage Bill. Take a case of a lawyer in public service. The differences in wages for this lawyer when they are a lecturer in a public university, to when they move to the Judiciary is huge. The same case is evident from the frequent movement of lawyers from the office of the Director of Public Prosecution to the Judiciary.

Solving these require that we harmonise salaries to reduce the disparities and enhance equity in pay, we align staffing at the national and county level and be more thoroughgoing with the work on unbundling and costing of functions.

Coupled with this the ongoing efforts to curb corruption in will help to reduce the cost of government and ensure that we live within our means as a country.

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