19 March 2019

Kenya: Technology Can Help Stem Corruption in Government

opinion

It was interesting to note on social media that the 'war on corruption' that has recently hijacked headlines is actually not new.

The first President, Jomo Kenyatta, started it, his successor, President Moi, claimed to fight it and so did President Kibaki.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has taken up the same mantra of 'war on corruption', but Kenyans must be forgiven for being sceptical, given the evidence of spectacular failure from previous presidents on the corruption front.

Can technology help in the fight against corruption?

President Kibaki's regime introduced rapid automation in government and the Jubilee government promised even more automation in the public sector.

DIGITAL GOVERNMENT

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, majority of government departments and agencies are quite digitally ready, with employees routinely using common applications in areas such as finance, Human Resource and Internet.

But corruption continues unabated.

Clearly automation or technology has not reduced corruption. In fact, given the fact that ICT-related projects often come with huge budgets, one may well argue that technology acquisition has increased the corruption budgets.

Nevertheless, with automation, it becomes easier to follow the money trail. So whereas current technology may not stop corruption, it does help in investigation corruption-related transactions.

The two National Youth Service (NYS) scandals come to mind as a good example of quick investigations made possible by the not-so-popular government Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS).

The weakness of IFMIS, which also applies to all other computerised systems is that they follow the well-known philosophy of 'garbage in, garbage out'.

If an authorised clerk creates a voucher that claims Biros or were supplied at Sh1,000 a piece, the system will simply accept that.

If an authorised accountant then approves the same weird amounts for payment, the system will obviously oblige and issue a cheque to the supplier, even in cases where such a supplier may have never supplied anything to the NYS.

Technology on its own may therefore never stop corruption given that it presumes a human element that is trustworthy or at least operates with some minimal ethical standards.

BLOCKCHAIN

However, there are some emerging technologies that try to program or hardwire the human trust component into the software through automated consensus mechanisms.

Commonly known as Blockchain based systems, they decentralise and encode trust between multiple participants in an effort to reduce the chances of fraudulent activities going through.

In the IFMIS case, for example, multiple participants may include NYS, Suppliers, Kenya Revenue Authority, Banks, amongst others who would agree on the common rules of engagement.

These rules would then be coded into immutable software running autonomously on different servers to coordinate activities and transactions in a way that ensures better transparency.

Based on the rules agreed upon by the participants, the decentralised trust system would provide for NYS autonomy in terms of raising transactions but introduce additional checks and balances from other participant's servers.

As an example, the servers from the bank maybe programmed to automatically receive and crosscheck a transaction from NYS, to ensure that the alleged supplier does indeed have a bank account.

If not, then an alert would be issued back to the NYS servers for higher levels of approvals.

The whole idea is to automate and decentralise the governance structures amongst multiple stakeholders in order to mitigate against common fraudulent activities.

PARADIGM SHIFT

This approach will of course contradict the way traditional government entities operate and will therefore require a huge paradigm shift within the civil service.

It will also require changes within the administrative, policy and legal frameworks to allow for such a decentralised approach to approving public sector transactions.

Such Blockchain systems are increasingly gaining traction in the pubic sector largely due to their anticipated efficiency gains. However, in Kenya, we may need to adopt them as one of our final strategies to slaying the corruption dragon.

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