When a seasoned economist tried to calculate the exact cost of delivering malaria treatment services at the county level, the closest he could come was an estimate based on “imprecise” data.
Prof Mwangi Kimenyi, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, had run into an obstacle that is increasingly frustrating local researchers and policy makers locally— the dearth of relevant, accurate data to inform decision-making.
“Strengthening data gathering needs to become a priority for Kenya now, particularly since we are devolving. We need to have detailed information on what is happening in every county,” said Prof Kimenyi.
Kenya’s data collection mechanism, never robust to begin with, has been focused on national level statistics. Previously, the breakdown of information was along provincial lines.
County governments are now in need of data to inform budgeting and planning, and officials are scrambling to meet these needs seven months after the devolved system of governance came into being.
“Sometimes this data is available but has not been localised, and this is the challenge that we are facing, especially in the health sector,” said Mr Stephen Wainana, the economic planning secretary at the Ministry of Devolution and Planning.
The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) is the government agency charged with collecting and disseminating data. In a phone interview with Sunday Nation, KNBS acting director general Zachary Mwangi said they have initiated reforms to adapt its data collection systems to a different government structure.
Under the national strategy for development of statistics, KNBS says it is engaging users and producers of data to identify their needs. And beginning next year, Mr Mwangi say surveys carried out by KNBS will have a county focus.
“With the devolved system, we need to get county specific indicators. What that means is that if we are doing any survey, we will have to make the samples larger,” said Mr Mwangi.
However, some of the problems with gathering data have been with us for a long time. The country has lagged behind in collecting and distributing data on key indicators. Labour is one of the sectors with fundamental data gaps.
In 1998/1999, Kenya carried out its first and only Integrated Labour Force Survey (ILFS). The study developed a rich data bank of unemployment figures, child labour and the composition of the informal sector.
Since then, KNBS has relied on surveys carried out on a smaller scale to update these figures. In the European Union, however, labour force surveys are carried out annually.
An agricultural census that would provide extensive data on such indicators as land size and land holding is non-existent. KNBS depends on administrative data from the ministry of Agriculture.
The household budget survey, which ideally should be carried out every five years, is also overdue. This survey, according to Mr Mwangi, would provide accurate poverty estimates at the county level.
Part of the challenge is the high cost of collecting data. According to Mr Mwangi, carrying out the household budget survey will cost at least Sh1 billion.
“Surveys are not cheap to carry out. In the past, government has tried to mobilised funds for the purposes. We are turning to development partners for support in this area,” he said.
Despite these challenges, stakeholders say that even where information is available, lack of coordination among different government agencies often means that data released to the public is scanty.
Jason Lakin of the International Budget Partnership has often taken the Treasury and the Commission on Revenue Allocation (CRA) to task for failing to make public the data that has formed the basis for a lot of decision-making dealing with devolution.
In a critique of CRA’s marginalisation policy, Mr Lakin says the body is yet to make public the background papers that informed the development of the policy, adding that the mathematics used to calculate the cost of devolved functions remains “fuzzy”.
“Lack of reliable data and explanations of the data at the overall level and for each county has massively politicised devolution, distracted attention from the most important issues and added fuel to the fire of distrust that threatens to engulf national institutions like the Treasury and CRA,” Mr Lakin wrote in response to e-mail queries from Sunday Nation.
In the budgeting process, he noted, the Treasury has failed to make public a “sufficient narrative” to understand numbers indicated in government documents—a shared concern that was also raised by the World Bank in a report released last week.
In its report, Achieving Shared Prosperity in Kenya, the WB notes that although detailed budget estimates have become comprehensive, “they lack transparency and are not easily comprehensible to citizens due to the huge amount of tabular details provided without accompanying narratives.”
The level of opacity facing those who try to access government data is most evident in the slow progress of the Open Data Initiative. Launched in 2011 by former President Mwai Kibak, it made Kenya one of the first countries in Africa to make government data publicly available on the Internet.