Ideas & Debate

Kibaki lessons that can make Uhuru’s Big Four a success

President Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE PHOTO | NMG
President Uhuru Kenyatta. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

It is disappointing, but not surprising, that within the space of a fortnight, “Big Four” and “The Handshake” are already yesterday’s news. Three conversations are now happening.

First, the usual weekend political noise that pits calls for a referendum against what is now termed the “Uhuru Succession”. Second, questions around the purpose of government, highlighted no doubt by the recent Solai Dam tragedy and emerging claims of more looting at the National Youth Service.

Third, through a fast-expanding series of impressive op-eds and think pieces in both mainstream and alternative media about Kenya’s past, present and future.

Chaos, you exclaim! Yet, thought about differently, maybe these are the conversations we need.

In the same fortnight, President Uhuru has read the private sector a “Big Four” riot act on corruption (at its most recent Roundtable). Clearly those NYS tenderpreneurs and insider cartels “missed the memo”.

More seriously, as a colleague likes to point out during our regular official meetings, in Kenya nobody pays the price for failure. That’s our long-term challenge; zero accountability for results good or bad.

In the short-term, this is the same trouble with Mr Kenyatta’s transformation agenda. His key change instrument is an unreformed public service. Governors at county level, having inherited many from the old civil service, face much the same problem.

Let’s step back into history to understand my unusual, and probably unpopular, perspective.

The essential difference between the previous Kibaki and current Uhuru administrations has been in identifying where the change levers lie. Any student of the history of successful public service reform knows that it is best leveraged around three central policy functions – public service management, finance and planning (or what in the UK was once referred to as “pay and rations”).

Focus on this and you control the entire reform agenda. President Kibaki paid close interest to these functions, knowing full well that if he got them right, line functions such as agriculture, education, health, infrastructure and the like would perform (because their pay and rations were right).

Between 2003 and 2012, Kenya made much progress, especially during Mr Kibaki’s first term in office.

This “pay and rations” approach to public service reform and transformation is not illogical.

Outside of foreign policy, government exists to (1) fix long-term social and economic challenges (policy-oriented public service), (2) deliver growth (planning), (3) deliver efficient and effective government (service-oriented public service and (4) manage with fiscal responsibility (treasury).

Preferably in that order of priority. The only argument with the Kibaki administration is on how much growth was prioritised - in and of itself - over policy change in line with the needs of the people.

Mr Kenyatta has largely ignored this “pay and rations” approach, instead focusing his attention on line functions that reflect individual themes – infrastructure, gender, youth. Yes, Mr Kibaki is also remembered as an “infrastructure President” but here I’m talking about observed action in public service, rather than public speeches and pronouncements.

Mr Kenyatta’s “Big Four” agenda continues this thematic focus – agriculture, housing, health, trade and industry – a hoped transformation of Kenya without horizontal governmental reform.

In order to succeed, he will have to personally micro-manage these functions (recall his interventions on the SGR) or outsource them (accelerating the risk of sabotage by the existing public service, which we should recall is permanent and pensionable). No surprises if he soon starts expressing new frustrations.

Mostly, however, it means that Kenya is pursuing a transformation agenda without building on the benefits of our 2003-2012 “pay and rations” reform and the potential offered by the 2010 constitution.

I am not convinced that our National Treasury can claim that we are “Big Four”-ready without a “Public Spending Review” that surfaces the waste, maladministration and theft pervading our budget cycle.

I do not believe we can separate this review from a “Public Policy to Performance Review” that integrates Treasury with Planning, Performance Management and Public Service across government.

I would offer the exact same reasoning for county governments if they don’t want “lipstick on a pig”.

Without a pay and rations-led “Big Four”, the official “Big Four” is designed to fail. At which point, we shall spend the next year or so fighting over “referendum vs. succession”, not the true constitutional change that could takes us forward after building on some base of performance improvement.